Monday 15 June 2015

Henze double bill at the Guildhall School

Henze's Phaedra at Guilldhall School of Music and Drama - photo credit Clive Barda
Final scene of Henze's Phaedra
photo credit Clive Barda
Henze Ein Landarzt and Phaedra; Dir: Ashley Dean, cond: Timothy Redmond; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 12 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Brilliantly performed double bill of Henze's first and last operas

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has certainly been giving its students some interesting and varied operatic challenges recently, with operas by Jonathan Dove, Arne, Stradella, Dvorak, Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold not to mention Wolf-Ferrari in the Autumn. For the school's final production of the year it presented a double bill of operas by Hans Werner Henze, Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) and Phaedra. Both were directed by Ashley Dean, conducted by Timothy Redmond with designs by Cordelia Chisholm
Martin Hassler in Henze's Ein Landartzt  Credit: © GUILDHALL SCHOOL / CLIVE BARDA
Martin Hässler in Henze's Ein Landartztphoto credit Clive Barda

Effectively the double bill gave us Henze's first and last operatic thoughts. he originally wrote Ein Landarzt in 1952 and Phaedra was premiered in 2007, five years before Henze's death. Ein Landarzt was written as a radio play and is a word for word setting of a short story by Franz Kafka. Henze produced a stage version in 1964 as a solo vehicle for the baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. It tells the story of a country doctor who gets called out in the night and becomes involved in strange supernatural (and ultimately unexplained) events and is not helped by his patients.

It is a strange and unsettling work lasting 30 minutes. The music is Henze in Bergian mode, with some ravishing orchestration and a vocal solo which grabs you at the beginning and does not let go. The solo part is a challenge, a monologue lasting 30 minutes in which the singer narrates and acts out the events. Martin Hässler gripped from the very opening, combining vibrant tone, strongly vivid words and a securely involving sense of narration.
Phaedra proved rather different. The work is a retelling of the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus to a libretto by Christian Lehnert. But the regular story telling of the tale end with Act One, and in Act two Artemis resurrects Hippolytus, locks him in a cafe and ultimately he is risen as the King of the Forest in the cult of Artemis.

A strange work is rendered stranger by the fact that between Acts One and Two, Henze was in a coma and had a near death experience. Henze described it as a concert opera, and much of it is narration, delivered by all the soloists.

Meili Li and Lawrence Thackeray in Henze's Phaedra at the Guildhall School - photo credit Clive Barda
Lawrence Thackeray and Meili Li in Henze's PhaedraPhoto credit Clive Barda
The problem, for me, was the sheer obscurity, obliqueness and over complex language of the libretto. Lehnert had written it in a highly poetic, baroque language which seemed to leave no room for the music. The first act was highly stylish to look at with both Aphrodite (soprano, Laura, Ruhi-Vidal) and Artemis (counter-tenor Meili Li) dressed androgynously and the whole taking place in a neutral space. Ailsa Mainwaring and Lawrence Thackeray made a strong pairing as Phaedra and Hippolytus.

But in Act Two, the setting got strangely vogueish with lots of video screens and a modern evocation of Frankenstein in the scene where Artemis's resurrects Hippolytus. All three female characters were turned into vamps, and Ashley Dean's production seemed to lose both direction and sense of style. The end with a Fred Astaire-like Minotaur from Rick Zwart seemed to suggest Ashley Dean had lost confidence in the work.

Whilst I might have had doubts about the opera, there is no doubt that performances were very strong. Ailsa Mainwaring was coruscating in Act One, and throughout Lawrence Thackeray was tireless, in a highly taxing role. Meili Li dragged up stylishly and sang mellifluously, but also moved into his baritone range to describe Hippolytus's death at Poseidon's hands. Laura Ruhl-Vidal was musically strong in a role which seemed uncertain of what it was.

What I took away from the performance was the strength and confidence of these performances, and the luminous moments from Henze's scores. In the orchestra he was able to clearly work magic. in the pit Timothy Redmond kept all on a nicely even keel.

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