Phaedra - Barbican, 17 January 2010
Life imitated art in the most extraordinary and devastating way possible while Hans Werner Henze was writing Phaedra. Having dispatched his hero, Hippolytus, to the great beyond at the end of Act I, Henze himself was struck down with a mysterious, paralysing illness. For two months friends arrived at his bedside to pay their final farewells to the great composer. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously as it began, the illness ended. Henze was on his feet again and ready to compose the second and final act - appropriately enough, the resuscitation and rebirth of Hippolytus.
The difference between the two acts – performed without a break at the Barbican – is marked. The first, mostly atonal, sets a brutally elegant retelling of the Phaedra myth in Christian Lehnert's strange and elliptical poetry. The second offers a dreamy, often rapturous vision of an afterlife. Resurrected by the goddess Artemis, Hippolytus is caged and renamed. He can’t remember his earlier life, but even so, Phaedra can’t lure him into the Underworld. Finally the Minotaur – until then a subliminal presence – actually appears, and Hippolytus is transformed into the King of the Forest (an echo of the Fourth Symphony, heard the day before).
Is Hippolytus really alive again, or is this a dream - or perhaps a wishful memory? The libretto doesn’t provide easy answers, and Henze resists a musical resolution. With just 23 musicians, and only four of them strings, he alternates scalding atonal density with yearning glimpses of delicate and nostalgic tonality.
The five singers, scoreless, circled the tightly-packed Ensemble Modern in the centre of the stage, but their movement did little to elucidate the cryptic tale. This performance, the UK’s first, brought together the cast from 2007’s Berlin premiere. John Mark Ainsley, looking more Henze-like the older he gets, sang the part of Hippolytus with great beauty and a sensitive ear for text. That Artemis was portrayed by a man, countertenor Axel Köhler, seemed almost irrelevant. Köhler’s rich, firm tone disabused any notions of camp. Maria Riccarda Wesseling’s Phaedra was vivid and human, Marlis Petersen’s Aphrodite exquisitely sung.
All the vocal writing is very testing in terms of range and coloratura, so it's to all the cast's credit that it never sounded less than easy. The multi-instrumentalists of the Ensemble Modern too made light work of a challenging score which called for a host of rumbling giants like the bass trombone, bass clarinet and even the anaconda-shaped contrabass clarinet.
Perhaps they were all encouraged to give that extra ounce more by the beatific presence of Henze himself, concluding his weekend in London with a standing ovation that perhaps acknowledged not just the evening's performance but everything he's given to music over the years.
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