Sunday, 25 April 2010

Elegy for Young Lovers, English National Opera, 24 April 2010

Young Vic

Hilda Mack – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Elisabeth Zimmer – Kate Valentine
Carolina von Kirchstetten – Lucy Schaufer
Toni Reischmann – Robert Murray
Gregor Mittenhofer – Steven Page
Dr Wilhelm Reischmann – William Robert Allenby
Josef Mauer – Stephen Kennedy
Servants at Der Schwarze Adler – Joyce Henderson, Stephen O’Toole, Sam Taylor, Emma Vickery

Fiona Shaw (director)
Tom Pye (designer)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Lynette Wallworth (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Stefan Blunier (conductor)

Three cheers to ENO for staging Henze! It is more than time that one of our major companies did, nine years having passed since the Royal Opera’s superb Boulevard Solitude. (If only that might be revived, though there are of course more pressing concerns, such as hearing x and y in multiple revivals of La Traviata…) This Elegy for Young Lovers is on a smaller scale, but so is the work itself – and smaller is not necessarily lesser. Performances are generally good, and Fiona Shaw’s direction in the intimate space of the Young Vic impresses.

Elegy for Young Lovers is one of those works concerned with the figure of the artist: a subject that not unnaturally tends to delight a good number of artists. The writer, Gregor Mittenhofer exploits all those around him for the sake of artistic inspiration – which seems in his case to be more transcription of events than sublimation into something greater. Poor Hilda Mack, who lost her husband forty years ago, is of value only on account of her visions, which he greedily plagiarises. When Elisabeth forsakes him for his godson, Toni, he gives his blessing, but then, when the Alpine guide calls to warn of a blizzard, claims that he knows of no one out on the mountain, having sent them to gather flowers for him. The point is less revenge than that they can serve as the ‘inspiration’ for his new poem, Elegy for Young Lovers. It is with a public reading in Vienna – here on video – that the opera ends.

Shaw’s setting is essentially when and where it should be: the Austrian Alps in the early twentieth century. She directs the cast well, doubtless drawing upon her own theatrical experience, and even manages to get the singers’ spoken dialogue to sound as if it is delivered by actors: no mean achievement, as veterans of The Magic Flute or Fidelio will tell you. All, quite rightly, is ultimately focused upon Mittenhofer’s ego, but delineation of other characters is not neglected. A true coup de théâtre, for which Tom Pye’s design work should also be credited, comes at the end of the second act, when the ice clock, which has been chiming the hours, is smashed by Mittenhofer in his impotent rage, wishing the lovers dead but surely also an expression of his artistic inadequacy. What makes this especially memorable, is the reappearance of Hilda, who now realises how she has been exploited. She picks up a little ice for her drink, undercutting the melodrama – that is, Mittenhofer’s egocentric melodrama.

Stefan Blunier, whom I recently heard give a fine account of The Love for Three Oranges in Berlin, was equally impressive here – not in the pit, but above the stage. The balance between drive and tenderness was well chosen, and the mélange of styles – Berg and Stravinsky, not for the first time, loom especially large – was given its due, without ever sounding incoherent. Solo instrumentalists from the chamber orchestra were without exception excellent; it would be invidious to single out anyone in particular.

Steven Page commands the stage as Mittenhofer. Vocally, there are a few less than perfect moments, but the portrayal of the role is all: monstrous, self-satisfied, ultimately hollow. Lucy Schaufer brought out both the pride and the sadness in the Gräfin von Kirchstetten: an aristocrat and, more important, a woman who abases herself for the dubious cause of the artist. (In a telling moment, Mittenhofer acknowledges the other characters’ inadequacies, though not directly his own; the dramatic truth is that he is right, at least with respect to them. They are human, all too human, too.) I was not sure why her accent veered towards the transatlantic though. Kate Valentine and Robert Murray were likeable as the young lovers, and their final scene, in which they imagine their old age and the course of their married life, was genuinely moving. It is difficult, however, to consider Murray a success as a romantic, or Romantic, lead; character roles should be more his thing. Jennifer Rhys-Davies’s turns – in more than one sense – as Hilda Mack were appropriately show-stealing. Her increasing lucidity proved both convincing and unnerving. Is she more unhinged than the ‘artist’? It appears not. I found the aggressive Irishness of Stephen Kennedy’s mountain guide (a spoken role) rather out of place, but this was a blemish upon the production rather than a fundamental flaw.

It is interesting to note that Auden and Kallman dubbed the work – their equivalent to Arabella, dedicating it to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Arabella is far from my favourite Strauss opera; indeed, I have never been able to make much of it at all, despite some wonderful moments. Moreover, apart from the hotel setting, it is not especially clear, at least to me, why they should think of Arabella. But one can see at least why the librettists might have been thinking of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, with their fondness for reflection on art and artists. Could Henze, though? He has often struck me as a Strauss-like figure, despite – or perhaps, on some level, because of? – his antagonism, which goes far beyond comments he might sometimes have made concerning, say, Wagner, Schoenberg, or Webern (though never, so far as I am aware, Stravinsky). ‘Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.’ Does the writer of these words, Henze himself, protest a little too much? And which artist is closer to Mittenhofer? A sadness for composer and librettists must be that they are constantly in danger of exploiting human experiences for the sake of something called art. Perhaps the imperative therefore ought to be that the art produced is good, for, as Adrian Mourby writes in a programme note concerning the Yeatsian inspiration for Auden: ‘It was Yeats’s failures as an artist that concerned Auden most. It was from these that he wished to distance himself. Mittenhoffer is not just a monster. He is probably not much of a writer.’ This production helps vindicate Henze and his librettists from at least that charge.