Half a century after its premiere, Hans Werner Henze’s chamber opera still sounds incredibly modern – an impression amplified by English National Opera’s punchy staging. We could dismiss Elegy as an introspective conceit: it dissects the artist’s ego in much the same way as Strauss’s Capriccio anatomises the nature of (operatic) art. Worse, Henze dared to marry the early 19th century forms of aria, duet and ensemble to a late 20th century instrumental/harmonic palette.

But he and his librettists, WH Auden and Chester Kallman, got away with it. By acknowledging that artists can be monsters, they satirised their own trade – as if to say they, too, could turn into a Gregor Mittenhofer, Elegy’s arrogant, abusive, unfaithful anti-hero. Their real purpose, of course, was to distance themselves from the charlatans who had a high reputation but not the genius to sustain it: it’s all right to be a bastard, as long as you have something original to say.

No one could accuse Henze of being a bastard. Nor did actor-director Fiona Shaw ever lack something original to say. She and her designer, Tom Pye, convince us that the action is all around us, thanks to an audience-hugging thrust-stage and a rickety Alpine rope-bridge overhead. There’s an ice-clock that drips time, a sequence of none-too-illuminating but far from intrusive projections, and a lighting design (Peter Mumford) that whisks us from morning-room to mountainside, sunshine to snow-scene. The beauty of Shaw’s approach is its intimacy, musicality and truthfulness – “conventional” virtues applied to an unconventional opera in a far-from-conventional space.

This poetic marriage of ideas and means reflects well on the ENO-Young Vic partnership – and on the ENO orchestra, conducted by Stefan Blunier with a real feeling for the drama and beauty of Henze’s score. Steven Page’s Mittenhofer dominates the stage: charismatic creative type, manipulative child, abusive bully all in one. Jennifer Rhys-Davies keeps Hilda Mack, the mad coloratura-singing widow, on the right side of the ridiculous. The young lovers are touchingly sung by Kate Valentine and Robert Murray. The one misjudgement is Lucy Schaufer’s Carolina, too self-confident to play the secretary-slave. ()

4 star rating

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