Hans Werner Henze - Elegy for Young Lovers
Franz Liszt Academy Budapest, 2016
Gergely Vajda, András Almási-Tóth, Kim Boram, Ákos Ambrus, Botond Ódor, Karina Szigeti, Lusine Sahakyan, Diána Kiss, Alexandra Ruszó, Viktória Varga, Xénia Sárközi, Kristóf Widder
Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 2 July 2016
Hans Werner Henze's idea of opera is very much a theatrical one, where the music is in service to the drama and capable of expressing deeper psychological levels. Elegy for Young Lovers in particular is a dramatic ensemble piece that delves into the lives of a diverse group of characters and attempts to show different sides to their personality and to how they interact with one another. Using multiple singers for several of the roles, the Armel Opera Festival performance of the Franz Liszt Academy of Budapest's production could be said to be an attempt to give as much of an insight as possible into Henze's musical expression of the drama and the complexities of the characterisation of Elegy for Young Lovers, or it might just unnecessarily complicate it further.
Dealing with the subject of a temperamental poet who uses his close friends and acquaintances as little more than material for his masterpieces, Elegy for Young Lovers is an attempt at a deconstruction of the Romantic ideal of the artist. It's intended to be much in the same vein as the operas of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but even as they recognised that there was no place for such ideals in the world they lived in, you can still detect a fond reverence and nostalgia for the loss of beauty in a more innocent age in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.
With a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kalman, the callous poet supposedly based on W.B. Yeats, the treatment is a little less sentimental in Elegy for Young Lovers. Hofmannsthal is even openly referenced in the libretto, as Gregor Mittenhofer - working in his retreat at a hotel in the Alps - reads scornfully through the critical reviews of his latest work, contemptuous of the praise of lesser artists. He's no more interested either in the people that surround him other than for how he can use their own personal troubles and reactions to inform his own work. He's not beyond stirring them up either, manipulating and mistreating them just so he can get a reaction that he can use.
That's largely fine as far as Lina his secretary and Wilhelm his doctor are concerned; they are well used to Mittenhofer's temperamental behaviour and carry on regardless. Even if they receive no thanks for their efforts, they are happy enough to sing their own praises. Elizabeth however is a different matter. The young woman has flattered herself that she is Mittenhofer's muse, and as such is uncertain about whether she should marry Toni, the son of Dr Reischmann, who is in love with her. She decides to tell the poet about Toni but Mittenhofer is surprisingly magnanimous, even encouraging them to set off together, although conditions are somewhat dangerous out there on the Hammerhorn at the moment.
The reason Mittenhofer isn't particularly concerned is that he is currently writing a work called 'Elegy for Young Lovers', and is unhappy about the "emotional untidiness" that exists (in real life and in the work), and it needs to be cleared up. Setting Toni and Elizabeth up to face the world together in a potentially doomed Romantic relationship on the Alps, the young woman forsaking her higher calling for love, should provide the kind of drama that should inspire him to great poetic heights.
There are a number of other characters in the opera, including Hilda Mack, a lady whose husband disappeared 40 years ago, and whose body Josef reports has recently been brought down by the glacier. There is consequently very much an ensemble nature to the work, a puzzle of characters whose lives and reactions are used, manipulated and exploited by the poet, with no real concern for their feelings. Henze's complex theatrical sound world is very much attuned to those rhythms, fitting mood to situation and using the voice as a highly expressive instrument.
The Franz Liszt Academy production uses multiple singers in two of the roles in an attempt it seems to master the challenges of the score as much as to elucidate the behaviour of the characters. Elizabeth is played by no less than three young sopranos here, one who is in love with Toni and uncertain about her position with the poet, one who confesses her love to Mittenhofer and is confused over his reaction, and a third who is the one who leaves and becomes the idealised fictionalised version that the poet has created to resolve this messy dilemma. There are likewise two Hilda Macks in this production, one who is the Romantic ideal of the woman whose husband died on the Alps, the other the rather more prosaic reality.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal, for all their post-modern play on their subjects, might have had a little too much affection for the Romantic ideal to be properly critical of it, but that ambiguity works in their favour. It's difficult to find the same redeeming qualities in Henze's Elegy, or at least the necessary ambiguity of a genuine human response to the subject. It's a little too clinical, and at the same time, it's not really edgy enough, although that is something that is perhaps more to do with the performances. I'm sure Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the original Mittenhofer, might have presented a more nuanced reading of the poet than Kim Boram - singing in a competition role here - but the singing and the stage presentation are all good nonetheless in this Armel Festival production of an undoubtedly challenging work.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival