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Henze’s ‘Phaedra’ by the Opera Company (3rd review)BY: Steve Cohen 06.12.2011
I would go back to see and hear Phaedra again in a heartbeat. But dozens of Opera Company subscribers, unjustly afraid of 12-tone music, let their seats go vacant.
Phaedra. Music by Hans Werner Henze; directed by Robert Driver; Corrado Rovaris conducted. Opera Company of Philadelphia production through June 12, 2011 at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 732-8400 or www.operaphila.org.
Phaedra’s big problem
I attended a later performance of Phaedra than my critical colleagues. What I observed on stage apparently differed little from opening night, but what I saw off the stage did, and it was disturbing.
At least two dozen seats were empty in the orchestra level and on the front row of the balcony. The opera was sold out; these were paid-for seats that went unclaimed, presumably by season subscribers who chose to pass this one up. Meanwhile, people willing to travel from other cities were turned away for lack of tickets.
What were the no-shows afraid of? The idea that this was new music, I’m sure, and from a composer known for his use of the “12-tone” system.
(In that system, the composer creates an order for the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale and uses them repeatedly in that exact order. Such music has no home base, or key. When the technique is expertly applied, the listener becomes unaware of its use.)
I’d like to address the stay-at-homes and others with similar fears. Phaedra is an opera that’s a joy to hear. Hans Werner Henze has written a pleasurable score for five singers and a 23-piece orchestra. Fourteen woodwinds and brass play alongside a harp, celesta, piano, percussionists and just four strings.
Phaedra’s scoring, for the most part, is spare, with many instrumental solos. You’ll encounter some noisy percussion effects, but none that would frighten anyone who ever enjoyed Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa. (Some of those who stayed home probably grew up in their era.)
Electronic sounds were added, but they were thunderstorm effects— nothing weird, nothing you could call space age like, say, Aniara by Karl-Birger Blomdahl.
More tuneful than Wozzeck
The most prominent opera to which Phaedra can be compared, music-wise, is Alban Berg’s 1925 classic Wozzeck, whose once-fear-inducing score is now loved by many. Henze’s Phaedra is actually more tuneful than Wozzeck, with lovely conventional harmonies in some of the duets and trios. True, these are set against dissonance from the accompanying orchestra, but none of this screams at you.
The music for the title character was accompanied by noble low brass, in keeping with her royal status. When the male lead Hippolytus sang, soft woodwinds suggested his preference for a rural life. The singers’ soliloquies weren’t radically different from arias by 20th-Century composers like Montemezzi, Korngold, Britten or Richard Strauss in Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Henze’s writing flattered the voices with expansive melodies and even included trills reminiscent of a much earlier musical era.
In Phaedra’s problematic libretto, however, Henze and his librettist Christian Lehnert chose a detached re-telling of the Greek myth about the queen who lusted for sex with the son of her husband, then accused him of rape, resulting in his execution and her suicide. A plethora of symbolic references distanced us from emotional involvement. So did the turning of Phaedre and Hippolyt (the German equivalent of the Greek name Hippolytus) into pawns in a territorial battle between the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis. Much of Phaedra’s libretto was suggestive rather than direct.
Debussy musicalized Maeterlinck’s Pelleas et Melisande with a wispy score that framed the enigmatic characters’ inarticulate utterances, but such success for elliptical operatic stories is rare. The masters — Wagner, Verdi, Mozart — practiced a much more direct art. Even when Wagner used allegory and symbolism, as in Parsifal, he narrated a straightforward story.
Henze and Lehnert added a second act that depicted Hippolyt’s rebirth in a modern era where he was seduced by a reincarnation of Phaedra but then achieved an equilibrium with which he will face the future. This turn of events unfolded even more obscurely than the first act. It posed fascinating philosophical questions, and it referenced the composer’s own near-death and recovery. When Hippolyt returned from the dead, he didn’t understand his place in the world, just like Henze when he came out of a coma before writing the second act.
But should an audience member care about that? Apart from the real-life connection, this part of the drama fails to stand well on its own.
Still Phaedra’s second act contains music with color and luminosity, and its hymn-like finale is moving. I would go back to see and hear Phaedra again in a heartbeat.
The spare set relied on projections that were evocative yet not overbearing, showing a labyrinth, woods, caves and Greek lettering on walls. Through these projected images moved shadows of the characters, which helped advance the story. Richard St. Clair created stylish costumes, especially for Phaedra.
Tamara Mumford, the attractive mezzo who played Phaedra, generated even more excitement than she did in the Opera Company’s Rape of Lucrèce in 2009, with superb musicality, warm sound and supple movements. Tenor William Burden was a sturdy Hippolyt, and soprano Elizabeth Reiter was a gleaming Aphrodite.
Bass Jeffrey Milner had a brief but solidly sung appearance. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo unfurled a large soprano-like voice as Artemis while looking like a fashion model of undetermined gender.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris and the orchestra sounded surprisingly comfortable with this new music. Robert B. Driver’s artistic leadership and his stage direction have produced a stunning visual and musical success.♦
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