Two years ago Harrison Birtwistle completed his latest full-length opera, The Minotaur, around the same time that his German contemporary Hans Werner Henze was incorporating the half-man, half-beast into his version of the Phaedra legend.
If Birtwistle’s work saw the composer in mellower mood, Henze was coming from a gentler and more lyrical starting point. It’s not the first time he’s looked to the classical world for inspiration – his Bassarids is based on The Bacchae and another earlier work (seen at the Proms some years ago) was Venus and Adonis - but here, with an elliptical, poetic text by Christian Lehnert, he takes the story in directions Racine would never have dreamed of.
The first act is an elegiac re-telling of the tale – Phaedra falls for her son-in-law Hippolyt and when rejected by him accuses him of rape and brings about his death - but the second, altogether more abrasive and theatrically-thrilling, flicks into grotesquerie, with Artemis reviving the dead Hippolyt in a Frankenstein-like resurrection.
Henze was reportedly not altogether happy with the Berlin premiere of the work, in which director Peter Mussbach gave this chamber opera a flamboyantly abstract staging. Perhaps the composer (present in the audience) was happier with the simplicity of the concert staging at the Barbican last night, given by largely the same forces as in Berlin. The performance benefitted from an orchestra familiar with the work and a cast not reliant on scores.
Phaedra is scored for just 23 players, with only a quartet of strings, and, in Act Two, an electronic background, which takes over towards the end, only to return to a celebratory dance finale which, to these ears, had something of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne opera about it (or is that a Theseus connection too far?).
Maria Riccarda Wesseling was the spitefully vengeful Phaedra and Marlis Petersen a slinky Aphrodite. The outstanding performance came from John Mark Ainsley as Hippolyt, mellifluous throughout and particularly affecting in his bewilderment on reawakening (a parallel experience with the composer who recovered from a life-threatening coma at this point of the writing).
The goddess Artemis is written for the counter-tenor voice (a staple, it seems, of contemporary opera), sexually ambiguous and sung here with gusto by Axel Köhler. The brief role of the minotaur was sung by Lauri Vasar and Ensemble Modern was conducted by Michael Boder.
This UK premiere was the crowning event of the Barbican’s Total Immersion weekend on Henze and the launch of a three-work Present Voices season (next up is Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America, to be followed by Michel van der Aa’s After Life). In a year that will see more Henze presented in London (ENO are staging his early masterpiece Elegy for Young Lovers in April), this was a fine way to celebrate a contemporary great, who earned that rare thing: a deserved standing ovation.