Rare Henze at the Guildhall

9 Jun

Another imaginative double bill from the Guildhall. This was of two sort-of operas by Hans Werner Henze – Ein Landarzt and Phaedra. Neither of them are common and, although the programme didn’t say so, I wonder if these were the English premieres. I saw the opening night on 8th June.

Ein Landarzt (The Country Doctor) is a setting of a short story by Kafka and originally written for radio in 1951 and subsequently adapted for the stage in 1964. It’s a piece for baritone in which the doctor tells of a nightmarish call to cure a patient involving magical horse, a groom that will rape is servant girl, strange, incurable wounds and an end with him desperately trying to return home. It’s a virtuoso piece for a baritone, written for Fischer-Dieskau. I thought that Martin Haessler gave a remarkably assured performance where he caught the balance that all good lieder singers need between acting and letting the singing speak for itself. He’ll make a smashing lieder singer, I think. As for the piece I rather wished it had been sung in English – I think you need to have the immediacy of understanding the words. The accompaniment struck me as no more than that. It sounded like most people’s idea of difficult modern music – spiky, astringent and not very lyrical. It was a strong enough half hour, particularly with Mr Haessler in charge, but I’ve no particular desire to see it again.

Phaedra is very late Henze, premiered in 2007, five years before his death, described as a Concert Opera. The first half tells the Greek Hippolytus story in which the wishes of the gods are linked with those of the humans – Aphrodite siding with Phaedra, Artemis (sung by a counter-tenor) with Hippolytus – it’s almost a battle of the sexes. I found the libretto for the first act impenetrable and the music, while much lusher than in Landarzt, less helpful, more soporific. The second act was more remarkable. Here Henze takes the Roman sequel to the Greek legend and has Artemis revive the dead Hippolytus, save him from Phaedra and Aphrodite who want to take him to the underworld and unleashes him as the lord of her forest. It’s an exploration of life after death, informed by Henze’s own experience of two months in a coma in between writing the two acts. The music feels as if it’s in an entirely different vein and I found myself interested in the ideas and concepts and in the expressive quality of the music itself. I thought this piece had something going for it.

It seemed to me to be impeccably performed. Lawrence Thackeray sang Hippolytus with real beauty and care for the words. He conveyed the predicament of the man with the dimmest of memories of his previous life really well. Ailsa Mainwaring was a suitably tortured Phaedra, Meili Li a strong, certain, Artemis, Laura Ruhi-Vidal a glamorous Artemis. Rick Zwart sang strongly as the Minotaur.

Ashley Dean’s production struck me as very strong indeed. He directed the first opera sensibly, not getting in the way of direct communication of the text. I found the first act of Phaedra a bit of a trial, the second Act fascinating and I thought that he caught the nightmarish uncertainty of Hippolytus’s position very successfully. There was real visual clarity about the interpretation and certainty in the acting.

Timothy Redmond conducted. I don’t know the scores, but the orchestral playing sounded convincing and assured. These cannot be easy scores to learn but there was real confidence about this performance and some really fine playing.

Unusually for operas at the Guildhall, the theatre was half full but the audience reception was more than respectful. I can’t see either of these becoming repertory operas but I think I’d see Phaedra again.

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