More than half a century has passed since the first performance of Hans Werner Henze’s Der Prinz von Homburg, but it is less than three months since the composer’s death. Henze’s longevity and untiring creativity enabled him to remain a major figure in the European musical landscape for so long that it is hard to take in the fact that Britten and Poulenc were still alive when he wrote his seventh opera.
Ingeborg Bachmann re-worked Heinrich von Kleist’s text for Henze, excising the militarism, smoothing the edges, rendering it timeless. The story turns on the Prince’s uncertain path between dream and reality, in a context of love and war. Henze makes the juxtaposition of truth and trance audible by casting the two states in respectively 12-tone and tonal musical languages.
The Mainz Staatstheater’s new production of the piece – the first new staging of one of Henze’s operas since his death – treats it as as an established part of the operatic canon, a classic deserving reverent and muted approach.
That the rich colours, sweet lyricism, and dark violence of the score are so grippingly audible has much to do with Hermann Bäumer’s musical direction. The theatre’s well-chosen music director brings clarity, warmth and intelligence to the work, weaving the score’s contradictions into a sinuous, sensual whole.
Christof Nel’s staging is a claustrophobic affair. Designer Roland Aeschlimann has devised an abstract, fissured green box of a set, and the all characters remain trapped within it throughout the evening, enacting and re-enacting various forms of violent death between encounters, as if trapped in some purgatorial afterlife. Nel moves his figures, clad in vaguely Prussian uniforms of the time (Barbara Aigner), with grace and elegance round the awkward stage. What it lacks – uncharacteristically for Nel – are both bite and clarity.
It is a deficit for which good singing compensates. The cast is even and strong. In the title role, Christian Miedl sings with rich baritonal warmth and moves with feline grace; Vida Mikneviciute lends the part of Natalie sharp-edged clarity; Alexander Spermann makes a commanding Kurfürst; and the smaller roles are sung with uniform excellence.
In all, it is a fitting homage from a small theatre for a great composer.