“I Am Here In My Beginning.”
This is how Hans Werner Henze’s latest opera, Phaedra, ends; Hippolytus, son of Theseus, who was killed and reborn as King of the Forest, is bathed in the glorious red light that the composer wanted ("It needs to be beautiful -- and the color red", he wrote in his diary, a priceless little book that it'd be very nice to see published in the US, by the way). And it's the culmination of a work that astounds you with its inventiveness, with the elegant dovetailing of the classic myth of Phaedra and the later versions of it (up to Sarah Kane's version of it), with the beauty of Christian Lehnert's poetry (it does not surprise that Henze, a Trakl fan, has chosen such a poet for his libretto, since Lehnert has something very similar to Trakl's ferocity and precision), and obviously the sheer power of HWH's music.
The first act puts to atonal music -- beautifully interpolated by
trademark HWH chromatic flashes -- the classic version of the Phaedra
myth: Aphrodite makes Phaedra fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus,
a follower of Artemis; he turns her down; he dies; she commits suicide.
But the second act of the opera (or, better yet, the Konzertoper
as Henze calls it, sometimes oratorio, sometimes opera, sometimes
simply rapturous dance) is very different: it was written by Henze
after his terrible bout with illness, a two-months long coma: and if
anything, the difference between the two acts, is that the composer's
creative powers seem to have been even enhanced -- the second act is a
dreamy, feverish, Dionysian 45 minutes, where everything happens on the
barely visibile border between dream and reality, sleep and
wakefulness, between life and death. Artemis takes Hippolytus to her
temple in Nemi, in Central Italy (a few miles from Henze's home in
Marino). She brings him back to life, renames him Virbius, and cages
him. Phaedra comes back as a bird, then as a woman, trying to lure him
into the Underworld. He refuses but does not remember his previous
life. In the end the Minotaur -- whose presence we always felt but
never witnessed -- appears and Hippolytus/Virbius is transformed again,
and becomes the King of the Forest.
What have we just witnessed – a rebirth, a new beginning, or the dream of a dead man, a dialogue of shadows?
Henze, as always, does not have any easy answers. His score is written for four singers and twentythree musicians – of which only four are strings. Henze, the Darmstadt rebel who left his comrades in atonal indoctrination saying that he had already had one Fuehrer in his life, thank you very much, and didn't really need another, here dreams up sudden flashes of stunningly beautiful tonal music that erupt from the score's twelve-tone heart like smiles. There are moments when textures get so intricate that you can only think of what Simon Rattle once said about Henze – Rattle was about to conduct one of his works so he asked of an especially complex passage, “Hans, there are 25 lines here, which ones do you want to hear the most”, and Henze answered “But I love them all!”. And that, obviously, settled the issue: I love them all.
When the opera premiered last September in Berlin, Peter Mussbach gave it a decidedly modern, almost Freudian feel. In the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production we saw, Michael Kerstan remains faithful to Henze's intent (the staging is indeed a true collaboration between the two, and with Nanà Checchi for sets and costumes). There are delicious touches -- Artemis here is a countertenor – in a supergay headscarf, sort of Pirates of the Caribbean meets Valentina Cortese – instead of a contralto – now that’s why the very handsome tenor Hippolytus kept shooting down superhawt Phaedra’s passes at him – a sly, delicious play on the “battle of the sexes” and on the “gender wars”, whatever those may be, by Maestro Henze, openly gay since an era – the early 1950s – when it was still extremely unfashionable, not to mention unpopular.
Conductor Roberto Abbado, Henze said recently, “manages to make the music of an old man sound like a 25 year old’s”. And it was stunning, indeed, to appreciate the beauty and the lightness of the orchestral sound, and it’s scary to think of how hard Abbado must have worked to achieve that with his orchestra.
Do you want to know what kind of night it was? It was the kind of night when, at intermission, you saw a kid from the orchestra timidly approach the composer, score in hand, shily asking him to autograph it – something that Henze, smiling sweetly, did, trying to conceal his obvious delight.
Playing host to the event was Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, that presented the opera, Phaedra, in the endearingly miniature Teatro Goldoni, housed in one of the quaint side-streets not far from Santo Spirito. OC went low-key, as the surprise rain showers threatened to make soggy her more treasured couture. Balenciaga black flared pants, Valentino black heeled-sandals, a black silk 3.1 Phillip Lim blouse, and a Boule de Neige small, black, pheasant-style wrap jacket were the perfect pieces for a low-key evening.
Roberto Abbado was chosen by Henze as the conductor, and led the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino splendidly.
Phaedra was sung by Natascha Petrinsky, whose lithe presence and well-rounded voice brought such a complex character to heartbreaking life, and she moved through the nightmarishly difficult coloratura required for the role extremely well (the role had been written for Magdalena Kozena, who, having read the final score, wisely realized she'd better pass on this one to avoid bad things happening to a carefully constructed -- and managed -- career), while Aphrodite's Cinzia Forte was also well-paired. Mirko Guadagnini's Hippolytus cut a dashing view, with precise singing and beautiful acting in Act two. Artemis, however, was sung by countertenor Martin Oro, which left OC perplexed because of some slight difficulty in achieving the necessary agility (but then again, this is a score that OC will study carefully over the summer because it's worth it, and the singing required is indeed monstrously difficult at times, so even Mr. Oro gets a pass on this one) .
Spotted in the audience was a glowing James Conlon! Impeccably dressed, all 5'3" inches of him.
OC was honored to have the chance to walk up to the legend himself, the 82-year-old Hans Werner Henze. And the conversation that followed will remain as one of the greatest moments in our life. After all, due to her age, OC never had the chance to meet Strauss, or Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. But she had the honor to meet Hans Werner Henze.
And after looking in the maestro's lively eyes the other night, having had the chance to express her admiration for him, OC would not trade that brief encounter in Florence for a meeting with one of those other giants.
In the photo below, the dapper old Maestro responding to the neverending cheering from the crowd at Teatro Goldoni.
After something like five calls, with all the audience, the orchestra in the pit, the singers on stage, and conductor Abbado clapping their hands like crazy, Henze put a hand over his heart, and bowed slightly, and smiled sweetly, mouthing simply "Grazie".