Philly offers US premiere of Henze's 'Phaedra'

June 5, 2011 - 9:58 AM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Life was surely imitating art — or at least inspiring it — during the time that Hans Werner Henze worked on his latest opera, "Phaedra."

The German-born composer was nearing 80 when he and librettist Christian Lehnert set out to retell the Greek myth about a noblewoman who falls tragically in love with her stepson, Hippolytus.

Henze had written most of the music for Act 1, which ends with the deaths of both characters, when in 2005 he was stricken by an unexplained illness that left him comatose for weeks. Upon his recovery, he wrote the conclusion — a series of dreamlike scenes in which Phaedra and Hippolytus are first reborn and then come to joyously affirm their own mortality.

This strange and compelling piece was first performed in Berlin in 2007, and on Friday night it received its U.S. premiere in a worthy production by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Borrowing from Euripides, Henze and Lehnert turn stepmother and stepson into pawns in a battle between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite, enraged that Hippolytus shuns physical love in favor of chaste athleticism, inspires the lustful passion in Phaedra that will ruin him. Artemis, meanwhile, does her best to protect Hippolytus, and after his death she brings him back to life and tries to keep him as a kind of pet.

The opera is compact — running less than 90 minutes — but musically it's extremely dense and rhythmically full of surprises. Henze achieves some dazzling effects with a chamber orchestra of two dozen players, heavy on percussion and brass — including the rare use of a Wagner tuba. Recorded sound effects introduce such noises as a thunderstorm and the ringing of a telephone.

Though the music is astringently atonal, there are passages of striking lyricism, particularly the writing for Phaedra and Aphrodite.

There's tremendous dramatic tension in the scene in which Phaedra literally throws herself at Hippolytus. And there's welcome comic relief at the opening of Act 2, when Artemis "operates" on the corpse of Hippolytus with such objects as a circular saw and a funnel.

If Henze's inspiration perhaps flags a bit in some of the later scenes, he redeems the ending with an ecstatic hymn in which all the soloists take part.

Philadelphia assembled a strong, all-American cast for this premiere, starting with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford in the title role. Mumford, who has been attracting notice in supporting roles at the Metropolitan Opera, sang with beautiful, even tone and seemed unfazed by a tricky vocal line that required extensive trilling. Tenor William Burden brought smooth vocalism and great sensitivity to the role of the hunter bewildered at being the object of so much desire.

As Aphrodite, Elizabeth Reiter showed off a well-focused soprano that blended nicely with Mumford's lower register. With intriguing perversity, Henze wrote Artemis to be sung by a man, and counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo displayed a voice of formidable power and allure. Bass Jeremy Milner lent strong support in the small role of the Minotaur.

The company's music director, Corrado Rovaris, conducted the orchestra with seeming mastery over the details of this difficult score.

The fittingly austere production, directed by Robert B. Driver, uses sliding screens as the only sets. Shadows are projected onto these to suggest settings like a forest or a cave, and the characters themselves are often seen in silhouette.

The company is staging this "chamber opera," as Henze calls it, in the intimate confines of the Perelman Theater. There are four more performances through June 12.