Der Prinz von Homburg is a 1960 opera by Hans Werner Henze setting a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann based on an 1811 play by Heinrich von Kleist. The essential context is Henze and Bachmann’s rejection of German militarism and authoritarianism that they believed was being built back into the new German Federal Republic. It has been enjoying something of a revival in the last few years, perhaps as a result of the resurgence of the Fascist/nationalist right, with multiple productions in Germany including one in Stuttgart in 2019 which was recorded for video.
Lisa Hirsch asked on Twitter the other day for suggestions for the five most important operas written since 1965 (i.e. in the last fifty years). It’s a really interesting question and I pinged off a quick, semi-considered response. Thinking about it some more I think I would stick with my choices. (Obviously I haven’t seen every eligible opera but it surprises me a bit how many I have seen live or on DVD). So here are my picks:
Hans Werner Henze conceived of L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe as his farewell to the stage although, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It’s a combination of Arabian Nights type themes crossed with elements from German folklore not unlike Die Zauberflöte, which is an obvious infuence. So obvious, in fact, that in the scene where Kasim rescues his beloved she is given a line straight out of Schikaneder. For the 2003 world premiere in the Kleinesfestspielhaus in Salzburg, director Dieter Dorn and designer Jürgen Rose chose a simple stage concept. The action is encircled by an arch, at the apex of which is a tower room. The old man, the ruler of the principality, inhabits the room. The action mostly takes place in brightly coloured scenes under the arch.
The latest episode of the Big COC Podcast is up on iTunes. This one features Gianmarco Segato of the COC plus three bloggers; myself, Lydia Perovic of Definitely the Opera and Leslie Barcza of barczablog. We talked about Henze and European modernism segging into the differences between modern opera in Europe and America. And that led to a discussion of Adès’ The Tempest, American conservatism, the Met and it’s audience, parties at Christopher Alden’s place and much more. Then it was on to Lydia’s new novel, Incidental Music(go buy it). There was also an interview with Nina Draganić about the free concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. When we came back it was for a discussion about the difference about men and women, action and feeling in opera and, ultimately, why the soprano always gets a raw deal! I really enjoyed recording this one. It really felt like a conversation between good friends (which it was) and it’s not been edited down too much. I think there may have been a segment on the Opera Atelier Der Freischütz that got chopped.
As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur. As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”. War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story). The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.
My DVD of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude arrived the day before his death at the weekend and so went straight to the top of the reviewing pile. It’s an intriguing piece. It’s based on the same Abbé Prevost novel as all the other versions of Manon but updated to the period of composition (1952) and told from the viewpoint of des Grieux rather than Manon. In this version des Grieux picks Manon up at a railway station while she is on her way to finishing school in Lausanne. They run away to Paris but des Grieux is broke and Manon’s brother pimps her to a rich old man, Lilaque. The brother robs the old man’s house which gets them both kicked out. Manon has a brief fling with des Grieux before her brother pimps her out again; this time to Lilaque’s son. By this time des Grieux has a pretty serious cocaine problem. The cocaine, naturally, is supplied by Lescaut. Lescaut is in the process of stealing a painting from Lilaque fils when Lilaque père shows up. Lescaut hands Manon a gun and she kills the old man. In the last scene we are back at the railway station where a disconsolate des Grieux waits for one last glance at Manon as she is taken to prison.
Coincidence and irony just ran into each other at high velocity. Last night my DVD of Boulevard Solitude arrived which, among other things, sent my mind back to the long, hot summer of 1976 when, between IRA bomb scares and hitch hiking around Germany I saw the Covent Garden premiere of We Come to the River; a work which deeply confused my teenage self and put something of a damper on my infatuation with European Modernism. So, I’m a bit ambivalent about Henze’s music but nonetheless much saddened by the news of his death for truly he was one of the giants of Modernism. By way of irony the news arrived while I was listening to Adrienne Pieczonka singing “Die Zeit; die ist ein sonderbar Ding”. So very, very true.