Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra is a triumph of will against destiny. Everyone expected L’Upupa, or the Triumph of Filial Love to be his last opera, and that was four years ago. Now, aged 81, with failing health, Henze has turned out a new work so vital and dazzling that earlier predictions of his imminent demise seem absurd.

Phaedra, composed to a libretto by German poet Christian Lehnert, draws on Ovid and Racine to retell an old story of ill-fated love, violence, passion, death and eternity. It is a lean, taut two-act “concert opera” for 23-part ensemble and five singers. Henze’s long-standing wish was to compose a work for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Phaedra opened there last week, but the story doesn’t end there. Brussels’ La Monnaie, Frankfurt’s Alte Oper, and Vienna’s Festwochen all joined the party to co-commission the piece. Phaedra’s journey has just begun.

Which is just as well, as this is a piece that begs to be heard again and again. Phaedra opens with a chorus and ends with a dance, following a tight structure that owes everything to four centuries of operatic history. Henze knows just when to borrow from the past, when to build on tradition, and when to strike out on his own. There are arias and dialogues, duets and ensembles, instrumental interludes and deft changes of scene.

The same applies to Henze’s tonal language. The piece has a 12-tone core, but dips in and out of consonant chord structures to please the ear or sweeten the mood where necessary. His is a lush, sensual, pictorial and richly inventive musical language, clean and effective, cleverly assembled, lavish without ever lapsing into excess. Like Mozart, Verdi or Wagner, Henze’s music paints the feelings behind the words, so that we hear his characters’ thoughts and emotions. The settings are also conjured up, from the hollow echoes of the Minotaur’s labyrinth to the plunging volcanic cliffs and gleaming waters of Artemis’s Nemi eyrie. Henze has lived close to Artemis, in Marino, Lazio, since fleeing Germany in 1953. Perhaps Italy is no longer the tolerant leftwing utopia he perceived then, but the country’s voluptuous colours still saturate his music.

Henze has nothing to prove and plenty to say. His music is utterly assured and absolutely gripping.

Lehnert’s evocative libretto tells a dramatic story with a strong focus on philosophical reflection. In the first half, “Morning”, Phaedra declares her guilty love for her stepson Hippolytus, encouraged by Aphrodite. Hippolytus, supported by Artemis, rejects her. Enraged, Phaedra tells her husband Theseus that Hippolytus has raped her. He, credulous, has Hippolytus killed, and the remorseful Phaedra commits suicide.

In the second half, “Evening”, Artemis has reassembled Hippolytus and keeps him in a cage. Aphrodite and Phaedra attempt to win him for the world of the dead. Hippolytus rejects Phaedra again, and is reborn as God of the Forest.

Lehnert blends contemporary language with archaic references. Hippolytus and Phaedra, he argues, are instruments of Artemis and Aphrodite, symbols of a divine squabble over the rival imperatives of war and love. Henze’s music speaks of both, with liberal use of both oriental and western percussion, fascinating instrumental textures, and sparing but powerful electronic effects.

The score treads a metaphysical tightrope between this world and the next, effortlessly invoking a porous divide between the living and the dead. The opera’s end is both transcendental and inconclusive: “We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance,” sings the Minotaur in his final hymn.

Ensemble Modern, playing on a platform at the back of the stalls, gives a virtuosic and full-blooded account of the score, under the competent direction of Michael
Boder. The cast is flawless, dominated by John Mark Ainsley’s fearless and compellingly expressive Hippolytus. Marian Riccarda Wessling, replacing the indisposed Magdalena Kozená on short notice, is note-perfect and utterly committed as Phaedra; Marlis Petersen equally so as Aphrodite; Axel Köhler shows vast range and communicative power as Artemis; and Lauri Vasar’s Minotaur gets a show-stoppingly sonorous last word.

Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has turned the Staatsoper inside out with an intriguing set based on two-way mirrors, a long catwalk linking the back-to-front orchestra with the stage. The audience twists to look back at the orchestra, and then, as the singers move forward, turns to see them reflected and perceives itself. Glittering prisms (lighting: Olaf Freese) multiply the images towards infinity. Perhaps all this would shed further light on the action and its meanings if the stage director were not Peter Mussbach. As it is, Mussbach moves the characters fluidly through the space in his own form of deep-freeze semaphore. The images are stunning, the meaning at best obscure. Things do happen, with a great deal of breast-fondling between Aphrodite and Phaedra, but it’s all so abstracted that it annoys more than it illuminates.

No matter. Perhaps Henze sensed it when he chose the subtitle “Concert Opera”. The music wins the day, and if the sell-out run in Berlin is any guide, it will go on to win the hearts of intelligent listeners for a good time yet.

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