W H Auden and Chester Kallman wrote the libretto in 1959 after Henze prodded them for a psychological drama. Centred around a celebrated, ageing poet Gregor Mittenhofer, the story deals with the grimy depths an artist will stoop to in order to find inspiration.
Gregor mercilessly sucks blood from those around him to feed his artistic bent and only those who manage to make a clean break from him can survive. It’s a pretty good premise, but not one that needs three hours to unfold. Henze was too respectful of Auden to prune any of the text, and so the opera drags a bit and lacks dynamism.
Apart from the general ‘theme’ about an artist and his destructive magnetism Act 1 seems to be full of bloodless trivia, sly in-jokes and unclear poetic visions and Act 2 is a fairly plain melodrama about a love triangle, but finally in Act 3 there is a very moving scene in which the dying young lovers fabricate their future lives, with its joys and inevitable disappointments. This was when the opera nearly became great, but it was too little, two hours too late.
Fiona Shaw threw a lot of ideas at the staging- a perilous rope-bridge, super-8 film reels, a cracked ice floor, period Austrian furniture, a melting clock and a flip-up mountain-side to name a few. It was clutter. Detailed realism looks inconsistent with bold visual metaphors elbowing in and the multiple projections told us nothing new about any of the situations or emotional states of the characters. It was a good-looking set, and every character (including the Fiona Shaw look-a-like playing the maid) had their part sewn up, but there wasn’t an overriding vision or solid point being made.
As Mittenhofer Steven Page was eccentric and distinguished, and did manage to look like the controlling, conniving wretch that he is. The emotional heart of the work was with Kate Valentine, who played the love-trapped Elisabeth beautifully, always living the role with tenderness. The visionary widow Hilda was brilliantly played by Jennifer Rhys-Davies, but her notes often lay so high that most of what she sang was sadly indecipherable- but this is really Henze’s fault, not Rhys-Davies’. Mittenhofer’s secretary Carolina was portrayed as very knowing and painfully conscious observer by Lucy Schaufer- all roles were naturally and subtly played.
The music itself is great. Rhythmically dizzying, but graspable, the dream-orchestra including saxophone, guitar, mandolin and a musical saw was bright and fizzing under conductor Stefan Blunier.