On the eve of the UK premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s latest opera Phaedra we spoke to one of the UK’s leading tenors, John Mark Ainsley who has a long association with the composer’s stage works.
The UK premiere of Phaedra will be the culmination of the Barbican’s Total Immersion weekend of Henze’s music, in a concert performance sung and played by the original cast, which includes the tenor John Mark Ainsley in the pivotal role of Hippolyt. Henze wrote the part specifically for him, after having worked with him on L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe in Salzburg, where Ainsley created the role of the Daemon. Having been premiered in Berlin in 2007, the later work has since been seen in Vienna and Brussels, and Ainsley has had the opportunity to reflect on its significance.
“It’s above all a very beautiful work, both musically and lyrically” he says, “Fair enough, the legend isn’t exactly alluring woman loves her stepson, he rejects her, she pretends he’s raped her and then has him killed but it’s Henze’s concentration on the development of that legend, what you might call the ‘life after death’ which is remarkable.” Henze had said that L’Upupa was to be his final opera, but he began Phaedra in a great creative surge only to be interrupted by a serious illness, through which has partner nursed him, then only himself succumbing to death.
It’s impossible to avoid the personal implications of this: “I wouldn’t want to make too direct a link but the emphasis in the opera is not with the suicide of Phaedra but the rebirth of Hippolyt, and the most lyrical parts of the music dwell on the relationship between love and death, humanity and spirituality there’s a different ‘feel’ to the second part, not so great that you think it’s by a different composer, but the shape of the opera was always going to be that the end was not with her death but his rebirth.”
The original production, by Peter Mussbach with highly striking sets by Olafur Eliasson is replaced here by a concert version. “Sung from memory so not too much stand-and-deliver, but still not exactly staged. It’s conceived as a chamber opera, so I suppose the parallels with Britten are there to be drawn, but these are two extremely individual composers and I would say that it’s only in their respective facility with instrumentation that there is a clear link, apart of course from the fact that both have been inspired by the legend of Phaedra.”
Ainsley describes the original staging as ‘the usual shenanigans’ in that it was controversial to a degree and not as in tune with the composer’s views as, say, the Salzburg L’Upupa had been. Henze, he remarks dryly, “generally likes what he’s written down to be discernible, and this was extremely abstract.” In a way it was an attempt to make it a genuine chamber piece in its use of extreme intimacy with the audience, but fully costumed and lit in a way which a concert performance would not be.
Henze wrote in his diary at the first performance of the work, that he would be able to ‘find out more about myself as a specialist in fear and suffering.’ It couldn’t be more different from L’Upupa, not just in its subject matter of death and love, but its use of such unconventional aspects as employing a counter-tenor for the role of Artemis, Hippolyt’s lover, “This is one of the work’s most fascinating aspects, in that it stands on its head the kind of Twelfth Night/ Rosenkavalier set-up of a woman dressing as a man here you have the counter-tenor voice, reminding us of Henze’s strong empathy with Baroque traditions, yet used in a wholly unexpected way. The part is at the absolute limits of the range, and Axel Kohler does it brilliantly I’ll be interested to see how the audience and critics feel about this playing with the notion of gender, and of course the idea of behaving as one might be expected to behave is always one which Henze can be expected to kick against.”
Contemporary opera has not always had an easy ride in London, not, as Ainsley firmly insists, owing to any lack of interest on the part of the public, “There is a great deal of enthusiasm and support for new music amongst the British public, but the powers that be sometimes tend to take a paternalistic attitude I feel the message can often be that this music is somehow not as worthy of promotion as, say, Brahms, and that is misguided.” Henze’s music is, after all, very accessible, especially in Phaedra where a small orchestra of 23 players the Ensemble Modern includes some quartet-like passages for the four string players and a vast range of percussion and keyboard sounds, the whole stressing the fluid, ambiguous context of the writing. The central characters are painted with a bold brush, especially the powerful, at times savage Phaedra and the disquieting Minotaur, but it is Hippolyt who is the work’s centre as Ainsley says, “It’s a challenge to do justice to this music, but one I don’t shrink from, and I’m hoping that the work will enthuse audiences as it did in Berlin.”
Ainsley is no stranger to challenges, in fact he seems to set himself up for them and a good thing too, since this very British tenor is now world-renowned for some extremely untypical forays into repertoire ranging over a vast period of time. He is off to Milan very soon, to repeat his searing performance in Janáček‘s From the House of the Dead at La Scala, no less, and a little later will take on his first Peter Quint in Madrid. Closer to home, after a week in which he takes part in a Wigmore Hall Gala on 31 March and gives London an all too rare opportunity to hear his peerless Evangelist in the St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square on Good Friday, he begins rehearsals at Glyndebourne for his UK debut in the role of Captain Vere. He scored a sensational success in the part in Frankfurt, so this May premire of Billy Budd looks set to be one of the musical events of the season.
Looking further into the future, a Peter Grimes is on the horizon, confirmed although he cannot yet ‘go public’ with the location; suffice to say that it is distinguished and that his interpretation will be eagerly awaited. For the moment, lovers of modern opera will have to be content with his portrayal of Henze’s protagonist in Phaedra which if reports from Berlin are anything to go by, should be yet another triumph for this exceptionally versatile tenor.
The UK premiere of Phaedra takes place at the Barbican on Sunday 17 January.