Tuesday 19 January 2010

Henze, Phaedra, Ensemble Modern/Boder, 17 January 2010

Barbican Hall

Phaedra – Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Aphrodite – Marlis Petersen
Minotaur – Lauri Vasar
Artemis – Axel Köhler
Hippolytus – John Mark Ainsley

Ensemble Modern
Michael Boder (conductor)

This concert performance of Henze’s latest – he seems now to have stopped speaking of his ‘last’ – opera, Phaedra, marked the end of the Barbican’s Henze weekend and also the beginning of its Present Voices 2010 series, which will also include performances of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America and Michel van der Aa’s After Life. Many, though not quite all, of the same performers gave the first performances at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden; certainly they seemed very much at home here with Henze’s style and musical demands.

In two short acts, the work re-tells the celebrated tale first of stepmother Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus and the latter’s consequent death, and then of Hippolytus’s after-life as Virbius, culminating in his resurrection as King of the Forest. The autobiographical consonance seems almost too good to be true: Henze fell seriously ill, having completed most of the first act, falling into a coma, or something very close thereto, before rising from his bed one day to start work upon the second act. But such would seem to have been the case – and, one way or another, much of Henze’s output has always been autobiographical in its concerns. We may stand far away from Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer, a warning of the perils of bourgeois leftism and perhaps the high water-mark of the composer’s revolutionary activism, but in this sense, at least, the works have more in common than one might expect.

Christian Lehnert’s libretto seems at times a little too full of its symbolism and general cleverness, though I wonder whether that might be different with a scenic element to the performance . Henze’s score is full of beguiling sounds, using his chamber ensemble in a way that betokens both imagination and experience. Yet I am not sure that it totally evaded the charge of note-spinning, rather akin to certain middle-period Strauss. (I have often thought there to be parallels between the two composers, though Henze would doubtless angrily disavow such a comparison, having once disparaged his predecessor as resembling something akin to a court composer to the last Kaiser.) There was magic, though, in the final scene, in which Hippolytus rises as King of the Forest: not so very far from the transformation of Daphne. And earlier on, I thought I heard a Gurrelieder tribute, when mention was made of a dove, or was it simply my ears tricking me? Some of the rest of the time, however, I wondered whether I was in the world of an updated French Baroque cantata, even though, to be fair, hints and sometimes more than hints of Ulisse-like paganism ensured that it was not all prettiness. The bruitage of the second act (that for both acts was provided by Francesco Antonioni) was in some senses a contrasting relief – and rather an impressive one, by turns realistic and abstract, and with clear dramatic purpose.

Michael Boder clearly knows the score inside out and performed it with persuasive confidence – and delicacy. Likewise the excellent Ensemble Modern, whom we really should hear more of in this country. Phaedra the title may be, but the central character is really Hippolytus (in which case, why the title?). John Mark Ainsley employed his light tenor to advantage, affording a sensitive portrayal, though without much suggestion as to why Phaedra might ever have felt so strongly attracted towards him. Maria Riccarda Wesseling likewise presented an intelligent depiction of Phaedra – I assume one is not supposed to warm to her – though her facial expressions could be distracting. Marlis Petersen offered no such drawbacks in a beautiful, if icy portrayal of Aphrodite. Those more drawn than I to the countertenor voice might still have had problems with Axel Köhler’s squally Artemis. Is that also not partly the composer’s fault, for is this really an appropriate vocal type for such a role today? It can work as something other-worldly, as, for instance, in Goehr’s The Death of Moses, but here it seemed an all-too-easy ‘Baroque’ reference. In any case, it was a relief when for a minute or so, Köhler fell into a perfectly decent ‘character’ tenor. At least as impressive as anyone else was Lauri Vasar, pleasing of tone and intelligent of expression; I certainly wished that his part, that of the Minotaur, had been introduced earlier.