Elegy for Young Lovers, Hans Werner Henze
English National Opera, Young Vic
8th May, 2010
As good as its score
In 1958 Hans Werner Henze wrote to W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman asking whether they might be interested in collaborating on a new opera. The resulting work, premiered at the Schwetzingen Festival in May 1960, was Elegy for Young Lovers. It has been one of those works that is regularly talked off in discussions of post-war opera, but rarely heard and, so far, currently unrecorded. Now, English National Opera has staged a new production by Fiona Shaw at the Young Vic, London.
The opera is a witty satire on the creative artist that questions the morality of how artists obtain their inspiration and what the effects might be on those who have to live around them. Put simply, is an artist’s bad behaviour excused by the quality of work produced? The central character of the opera, Gregor Mittenhofter, is a wonderfully comic grotesque. A poet who annually holidays at the inn in the Austrian Alps, Gregor comes to ‘take inspiration’ from the visions of an old woman Hilda Mack. Mittenhofer, whom Auden apparently based on Yeats, treats all around him, including his patron and secretary the Countess Carolina, abominably. It is impossible not to be both infuriated and entertained by him as he raves against the latest press reviews of his work, demands to be pampered and fed or smashes the large clock at the end of Act 2 when people refuse to act as his fantasies demand. The young lovers of the opera’s title are Mittenhofer’s mistress Elisabeth and godson Toni. Confronted by their affair, Mittenhofer turns them into instruments for inspiration (Hilda Mack’s visions apparently having dried-up by now) by sending them into the frozen mountains. Caught in a blizzard, they accept their impending death, but in a particularly striking duet, they sing of an imagined future they might have had – including, hilariously, future admissions of infidelity. Elisabeth (Kate Valentine) and Toni (Robert Murray) both came into their own here in parts that earlier in the opera are somewhat thin in characteristic music and action. The opera ends with Mittenhofer having turned them into art – we see him on a large screen giving a public reading of his new poem, called ‘Elegy for Young Lovers’.
The first thing to say about this production is that it is a hugely enjoyable evening in the theatre and ENO are to be praised for their courage in staging a new production which was overdue. The cast are all superb. Steven Page as Mitenhofer excels, but then it is a part with plenty for a singer to get their teeth into and his exaggerated eccentricities help to underline the suspicion that the great poet might be a fraud as well as an impossible man to live or work for. Even more enjoyable, I felt, was Lucy Schaufer as the Countess. Sitting by Mittenhofer’s bath in Act 3, she brought humanity to a role that could easily have become a one-dimensional cartoon. Jennifer Rhys-Davies was suitably inscrutable as Hilda Mack, a particularly impressive performance in a part that lies very high in its vocal tessitura. The ENO orchestra were in fine form under the direction of Stefan Blunier.
Without hesitation I can say that this is a beautiful opera to look at. Designer Tom Pye carefully achieved the contradictory atmosphere of both a vast icy landscape and the claustrophobic interior world of the inn and its high-maintenance inhabitants. A high walkway across the top of the stage is particularly striking and helping to ‘frame’ the action beneath. Only the increasingly ‘cracked’ and rugged surface of the stage seemed pedantic and unsubtle.
In many ways the production by Fiona Shaw was perfectly matched to Henze’s score: both its strengths and weaknesses. In both staging and music there is a clear dramatic shape. Henze knows how to tell a story and how to make a striking dramatic moment in music. This was mirrored by Shaw’s production where everything moved forward in artfully constructed arches to dramatic highpoints. However, it was the details that worried me. Henze’s score is typically exuberant and bursting with invention. He has that great operatic gift for providing quickly an entire musical world for a character. He can do pastiche very well and has superb theatrical timing. But the ear does at times wonder whether there is simply too much going on. Are orchestral textures over-written? Balance between voices and orchestra were not always ideal and I felt it was less to do with volume or vocal projection but over-scoring by the composer. And this busyness in the music seemed to overflow into the production where people were endlessly moving around at random. Though this conveyed a sense of energy, it also fed the suspicion that, like Mittenhofer himself, there might be hollowness at the core. The opera started to feel like a machine that had to keep moving at a great speed lest its wheels fall off.
Of course, by the late fifties, Auden and Kallman were already celebrated librettists having produced the text for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Henze himself has admitted recently that ‘the shadow of The Rake’s Progress hung over us all’. While neoclassical Stravinsky is one of many musical influences alluded to in this score, what might have been more problematic is the feeling that Henze was somewhat over-awed by working with Auden. The libretto reads wonderfully on the page but when transferred to the demands of a musical setting it becomes obvious there are too many words. Henze attempts to get around this by having many spoken passages. But the passages spoken to those sung seem chosen almost at random. Act 3 definitely feels too long and the – admittedly funny – duet between Elisabeth and Toni, outstays its welcome.
Reservations aside, this production was hugely enjoyable, beautifully sung and staged with a commitment and passion that did the composer proud. At the end of the performance, Henze himself stood to receive applause, and many of us rose to our feet to salute one of the outstanding composers of the post-war scene.
Bottom line: A salute to Henze and a good performace to boot
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Conductor: Stefan Blunier
Director: Fiona Shaw
Designer: Tom Pye
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Video Artist: Lynette Wallworth
Hilde Mack: Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Elizabeth Zimmer: Kate Valentine
Carolina Von Kirchstatten: Lucy Schaufer
Toni Reischmann: Robert Murray
Gregor Mittenhofer: Steven Page
Wilhelm Reischmann: William Robert Allenby
Josef Mauer: Stephen Kennedy
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION: http://www.eno.org