Henze’s ‘Phaedra’ by the Opera Company (1st review)

A spectacular new work of art

Mumford in the title role: Pleasing eye as well as ear. (Photo: Kelly & Massa.)
Mumford in the title role: Pleasing eye as well as ear. (Photo: Kelly & Massa.)

As an ardent advocate for new music, I'm always eager to observe the degree to which contemporary work engages audiences, especially captive opera fans at the ends of their subscription series, many of whom would have been much happier seeing a reprise of Tosca.

At the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze's 2007 work, Phaedra, I noticed very few empty seats— a good start. During quiet moments, I heard blessedly little coughing and candy wrapper crinkling, a sign that people were paying attention, perhaps even rapt.

The vigorous applause at the end sealed the deal; the Opera Company of Philadelphia took a huge chance in staging this production, and it paid off. A spectacular new work of art was presented with all of the stops pulled out, and the Opera Company has burnished its reputation well beyond the home base.

Phaedra's assets begin with a very fine score— uncompromisingly modern, but also exquisitely crafted and completely engrossing. The overall language of Henze might be described as post-Berg; expressionistic, dissonant and very dense.

In some places it's reminicent of Berg's Wozzeck. But then you hear startling, lucid stretches of neo-Classicism, recalling Stravinsky and even Haydn.

Finally, Phaedra offers strong lyrical impulse, reaching all the way back to the birth of opera and Monteverdi, especially in its haunting closing scene. Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra with palpable intensity and genuine affection for this difficult music.

Familiar themes, with good reason

Henze uses ancient Greek precedents for his libretto, with plot devices we've seen before, and often, including incest, afterlife, homo-eroticism, the supernatural, guilt, and so on. But playwrights and opera composers keep returning to these themes for good reason: They touch us to our human core, and the power resonates over the ages. These conflicts and passions fired the imaginations of artists working millennia ago, and no doubt millennia before that.

In Phaedra, these dramatic elements are conveyed by the music and the power of the individual performers, not necessarily the words. The libretto is almost comically obtuse, a great roiling mulligatawny of mysterious metaphors. Here's an example from the super titles, translated from the original German:

"Eyes of the tree that twists its roots together. Eyes of the gorse, of the furled fern. In silence, they marvel at their shadows in the first light of day. Is the light too glaring or is it too dark?"

Eyes of the gorse? Who carries a dictionary to the opera? In Phaedra's case, happily, the words function more like decoration.

Good looking, too

The Opera Company honored the drama with an exceptional cast, revolving around the central protagonists, Phaedra and Hippolyt, portrayed respectively by Tamara Mumford and William Burden, singers who are attractive both by virtue of their splendid vocal skills and their handsome good looks. This sensible combination of attributes is commonplace in theater but less adhered to in opera, where the voice trumps everything.

Secondary roles were also extremely effective. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo presented a touchingly nuanced performance as Artemis, with as rich and full-sounding male alto singing as I can remember hearing. Soprano Elizabeth Reiter's silvery-voiced Aphrodite was a fine foil to Mumford's penetrating mezzo, and bass Jeffrey Milner had a brief but striking appearance as the Minotaur.

Winking at absurdity

Staging at the Perelman is necessarily economical. Here it consisted merely of a sort of oversized shoji screen and projected images. This was very well executed by designer Phillipe Amand, quite striking at times, even as the beauty of the graphics never overwhelmed the music.

The production suffered a few clumsy moments, such as a buzz saw splattering blood and the jarring appearance of the Minotaur's head, but these visuals were likely meant to introduce a sort of wink at the absurdity of the story line, in which director Robert Driver finds no little humor, an observation he corroborated with the composer.

Every once in a while, a live production— whether it's a play, a solo pianist or an opera— delivers the wow factor. It's a simple test. When the last bit of action or sound fades away, you feel a basic response as you sit in your seat. Wow. This Phaedra delivered the wow factor and then some.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

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