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Hans Werner Henze dies aged 86

5 November 2012

Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)
Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)(Photo courtesy of Music Sales)

The composer Hans Werner Henze has died in Dresden, aged 86. A musical giant of the postwar era, Henze was a prolific writer for the stage: he penned more than two dozen operas over a 60-year period, maintaining a regular rate of roughly one opera every two-and-a-half years right up until 2010.

A deeply political thinker who had been heavily shaped by his experiences of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, Henze was an adherent of left-wing ideologies throughout his life. This informed his choice of texts and subjects for the stage, as well as his decision to leave postwar Germany for Italy shortly after the success of Boulevard Solitude in 1952 – a reworking of the Manon Lescaut story that remains one of his most popular operas. Other modern classics to emerge from this early phase of Henze’s career include two works with English libretti by W H Auden and Chester Kallmann: Elegy for Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), the latter a widely admired exploration of the conflict between human rationality and unbridled passion that unfolds in a single act lasting two hours.

Despite these successes, however, Henze increasingly felt his own musical and political path diverging from the ideologies that dominated avant-garde European culture. He became an isolated voice after openly associating with the student riots of 1968, making two visits to Cuba and experimenting with other theatrical forms, such as his musical La Cubana (1973).

From the mid-1970s onwards, Henze began a new and important creative association with the English playwright Edward Bond, which led to several commissions for Covent Garden including We Come to the River (1976), Orpheus (1979), and The English Cat (1983, revised 1990). Henze’s return to writing opera in German was also spurred by a new creative relationship, this time with the poet Hans-Ulrich Treichel, his librettist for Das Verratene Meer (The Ocean Betrayed, 1990) and Venus und Adonis (1997).

The composer announced in 2003 that L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe would be his last opera, but over the next seven years felt moved to write two further works including a ‘concert opera’ inspired by the Greek myth of Phaedra. In a curious echo of Britten’s late cantata, its transcendental but inconclusive ending offers an old man’s valedictory perspective on the nature of existence: ‘We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance…’


Sir Thomas Allen’s new Magic Flute opens in Glasgow

22 October 2012, Glasgow, Scotland

Pamina (Laura Mitchell) cowers at the feet of the Queen of the Night (Mari Moriya)
Pamina (Laura Mitchell) cowers at the feet of the Queen of the Night (Mari Moriya)(Photo: KK Dundas)

Review by Neil Jones

In this new Scottish Opera production of The Magic Flute directed by Sir Thomas Allen, Sarastro’s temple and his followers had a decidedly Industrial Revolution feel, complete with smoke, leather- and helmet-clad workers, and supervisors and managers in frock coats and top hats.

Simon Higlett’s curving set of wheeled metal spiral staircases and balconies was as busy as it was intriguing. Rolling back and forth throughout the opera to reveal sliding doors at the rear, it was from here that the first monster and later the Queen of the Night emerged, spectacularly costumed in an illuminated dress and enormous black cloak.

The Queen’s singing, delivered by the diminutive Japanese soprano Mari Moriya, was no less spectacular. Moriya’s effortless top F in ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was the very least of her simply electrifying performance.

Indeed, with one exception, the singing of the leading protagonists was very strong. Nicky Spence was a believable Tamino, Laura Mitchell demonstrated a convincing fragility as Pamina whilst Claire Watkins, Rachel Hynes and Louise Collett were suitably gruesome as First, Second and Third Lady respectively.

Richard Burchard was brilliant as Papageno with Ruth Jenkins delightful in her all-too-short appearances as Papagena. Jonathan Best was commanding as Sarastro although he struggled to meet the demands of the lower notes in Mozart’s score.

The real star of the show though was the extraordinarily witty translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. 

ON TOUR Aberdeen, His Majesty's Theatre: 1, 3 Nov; Inverness, Eden Court Theatre: 7, 10 Nov; Edinburgh, Festival Theatre: 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 Nov; Belfast, Grand Opera House: 29 Nov, 1 Dec 

WNO announces 'British Firsts' series

15 October 2012, London, UK

Philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty
Philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty(Photo: Emily Polar)

Welsh National Opera has announced a new series of contemporary operas over the next five years, all of which will be performed in the UK for the first time. The British Firsts series, which has been made possible by a gift of US$2 million from the Getty family, will include a staging of Gordon Getty’s Usher House directed by WNO’s general director David Pountney.

This decision to stage Getty’s opera has been questioned by critics, who suggest that WNO’s main motivation could be financial rather than artistic. On the contrary, says Pountney, ‘the whole thing started the other way round, when conductor Larry Foster rang me up and said “come and hear this work, it's a really special work”.’

The series will also include the UK staged premiere of Wagner Dream by Jonathan Harvey and Robert Orledge’s completed version of Debussy’s unfinished one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which will be presented in an Edgar Allan Poe double bill with Getty’s Usher House.


Donizetti's Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera

28 September 2012, Washington, US

Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'
Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'(Photo: Scott Suchman)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
Themes for director-conceived opera productions come in cycles.  We went through the Nazi themes, the pantomime-ending-during-the-overture-idea, and now it’s the play-within-a play conceit.

Last summer director Robert Lepage set Ades’ The Tempest on La Scala’s stage (Opera Now, October 2012), as did director Thaddeus Strassberger for his Nabucco at Washington National Opera (Opera Now, September 2012). In this new production, also at WNO, director Stephen Lawless has placed Anna Bolena on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre, conceiving the work as an operatic historical drama, with a pantomime of the history of Henry VIII’s first three wives taking place during the overture. The Globe’s curved wooden balconies acted as a backdrop to the action, from whence the courtiers and chorus observed, spied, and commented on the happenings on the ‘stage’ below. Lawless’s unified concept seamlessly integrated with Donizetti’s opera. 

The finely nuanced character portrayals etched with their compelling conflicts and contrasting emotions brought the opera to life as it unfolded amidst a set of wooden paneled walls. These twisted and turned to delineate the opera’s different locations, their varied formations creating the atmosphere of the scene, often claustrophobic. Antonello Allemandi’s initial lifeless conducting and soggy tempos resulted in unmoving climatic moments, which combined with lack of stage-pit balance allowed the orchestra to drown out the artists, even when singing at full throttle. But once this problem was corrected, one became immersed in the sheer splendour of the singing, and the power of the performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Ann Boleyn was exemplary, with a voice pure and clarion, nailing thrilling high notes with power to spare, and with believable heartfelt acting imbued with regal airs. Her intensity in the dramatic moments was scorching. Although Sonia Ganassi’s Jane Seymour was not as impressive, she was still effective, singing with precision and feeling. She rose to the occasion in her duet with Radvanovsky when she reveals to Anna that she is Henry VIII’s mistress, one of opera’s highpoints. Oren Gradus portrayed Henry VIII alternately as a mild Don Giovanni, and as a husband, hurt in the realization that his wife married him not for love but to be queen. Vocally his voice lacked colour and nuance, until near the end, when he rose to the occasion as a majestic king. Shalva Mukeria assayed Lord Richard Percy with luscious sound, hitting all his high notes with beautiful lyricism. His passion and fervour for Anna was palpable.

Das Rheingold at London's Royal Opera House

25 September 2012, London, UK

Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda
Show-stopping cameo: Maria Radner as the doom-mongering Erda

Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific
Fasolt's murder, more comical than horrific(Photography by Clive Barda)

Review by James Waygood

For all the naked Rhinedaughters and skinless abominations that he has thrown at Das Rheingold, Keith Warner’s acclaimed production still fails to lift this opera beyond being the weakest and most unimpressive of Wagner's Ring cycle. Yet with as strong a cast as the Royal Opera House has put behind it there are still moments that thrill, making this a reasonable evening, if not wholly satisfying.

Though the set, lighting, and video/projection work are visually arresting, one of the issues with the production is Warner's overly cluttered approach. Dormant singers will often fidget and pace in the background, distracting from an opera that is already struggling to hold your attention. Testament to this is just how well the more static moments work, such as Wotan’s goading of the defeated Alberich, and Erda’s doom-mongering prophecy. These are so expertly delivered by the cast that they render the ambitious staging redundant.

What really doesn’t chime are the production’s attempts at overt horror. Alberich’s transformation into a fearsome dragon, despite grotesque and gothic, was executed with laughable and clunky puppetry, and Fasolt’s murder was like a badly cooked steak – overdone and with nowhere near enough blood to achieve the shock factor that the production was aiming for.

Yet Antonio Pappano conducts with a measured lightness, making the orchestra noticed only when needed and leaving the cast to make the most of their parts. Indeed, they are the production’s saviours. Stig Andersen's Loge is delightfully cynical, sly, and sarcastic, and Maria Radner purrs and spits her aria as Erda to spine-tingling effect in a near show-stopping cameo. As for Bryn Terfel, it’s only when Wotan casts off the shackles of being the demagogue’s sidekick that he turns to dominating the stage with an unstoppable power, stunningly nuanced in his exploration of Wotan’s complex pathos.

Ultimately it’s an overburdened production of a fair opera with only its singers stopping it from being dreary. Given the performances here it sets the scene for what should be a much more enjoyable continuation of the cycle. Undoubtedly Terfel will yet again make his mark in one of opera’s most coveted baritone roles, accompanied by a supporting cast that are just as adept as the superstar himself.

A full review of Covent Garden's Ring cycle will be published in our December issue.


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