Monday 17 May 2010

Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers

Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, with its libretto by Auden and Kalman, has not had much exposure recently. A rather puzzling lack which is perhaps explained by the work's slightly awkward hovering between comedy and tragedy. It was admirable of ENO to choose it for their most recent collaboration with the Young Vic (seen on Saturday May 8th, apologies for this late posting). Fiona Shaw's confident production ensured that the performance went far beyond the admirable and turned into something gripping.

The Young Vic is not an ideal space for opera and whilst Shaw's production (in designs by Tom Pye) ensured that best use was made of the space, it left the small orchestra (24 players) tucked away on a corner balcony. Balance and ensemble were adequate, but I came away longing to hear the score again in a more sympathetic acoustic, one which allowed the ravishing textures, warmth and clarity of Henze's score to come over.

The plot concerns a monstrous poet, Gregor Mittenhofer, (Steven Page) who makes an annual pilgrimage to an an alpine Inn where Hilda Mack, the widow of a climber, (Jennifer Rhys-Davies) has visions inspired by the death of her husband 40 years ago. Mittenhofer uses these visions as source material for his work.

All around Mittenhofer subjugate themselves to his genius; his friend, secretary and financial supporter Carolina (Lucy Schaufer), his physician Dr. Reischmann (William Robert Allenby) and his young mistress Elisabeth (Kate Valentine).

What we get is, for the first two acts, something of a comedy of manners as the satellites around Mittenhofer seek to placate him and keep him happy for the sake of his art.

Frau Mack's husband's body is found and, given closure, she comes out of her trance-like state and becomes sensible. Shorn of the source of his inspiration, Mittenhofer needs to find another means of completing his latest poem, Elegy for Young Lovers.

So he allows his mistress to think that he is complaisant about her love for Toni, the Doctor's son (Robert Murray). But a great solo explosion at the end of Act two makes clear to us the amount of pent-up anger and self regard that Mittenhofer has.

In Act three, with the onset of a storm, Mittenhofer lies to the mountain guide and allows Elisabeth and Toni to die on the mountain (where he has sent them to pick Edelweiss). He takes inspiration in their death for the completion of his poem.

Steven Page was terrific as the monstrous poet, successfully negotiating the transition from grotesque comedy to horror. In the final act Henze's lyrical genuis flourished as he allowed us to hear Elisabeth and Toni's final moments (eloquently sung by Murray and Valentine); a real elegy to contrast with Mittenhofer's posturing.

Schaufer gave an impressive performance as Caroline, aware of Mittenhofer's faults but prepared to accept them in the face of his genius. In the last act she is the only person aware of Mittenhofer's lie, that condemns Elisabeth and Toni to death. Shaw's production successfully conveyed the impression that this changed the balance of the relationship between Caroline and Mittenhofer, giving her the upper hand. I am not sure whether this is in the music, but it made a great deal of sense.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Frau Mack was allowed to combined her abilities with Donizettian fioriture with her feel for comedy. In the first act she communicated solely by Lucia-like burbling, but is transformed in Act two into the only sensible person in the plot.

Shaw's production used a central acting space, which gradually fissured as cracks appeared in the characters' relationships. Behind, on one wall, was a screen on which videos appeared and through which we caught glimpses of the body of Frau Mack's husband, entombed in the ice. The main access being via a walkway high up across the stage.

Henze was in the audience and receive a terrific (and deserved) ovation at the end.

The virtues of this performance were that the production involved you in the drama and allowed you to be carried away. I came away fascinated and curious and very desirous of hearing the work again.

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