World premiere of new Henze cantata
When a past Washington Post contributor let me know he'd be attending the premiere of Hans Werner Henze's Der Opfergang, I, a long-time Henze admirer (scroll down), was happy to have him write it up. Richard Jones reports on the weekend's premiere in Rome.
Henze "Sacrifice" a triumph
by Richard Jones
The composer Hans Werner Henze has been waiting for an opportunity to set Franz Werfel's 1913 poem Der Opfergang (The Sacrifice) since 1953 when he first broke with his native Germany and moved permanently to Italy. Finally, a commission from the Orchestra della Accademia di Santa Cecilia enabled him to realize this ambition. Last weekend, at the orchestra’s new home in Rome, the Auditorium at the Parco della Musica, the premiere was a powerful and moving experience.
Now 83, Henze is pouring out masterworks like the elderly Verdi, and Der Opfergang, lucid and compelling, is one of his finest works (leading one to expect great things from his next opera, Gisela, to be premiered in September at the RuhrTriennale festival). Werfel’s poem is about a man (the Stranger) and a dog. The Stranger, running from the sins of his past, encounters, companions but then brutally slays an innocent, white hound that comes to lick and love him but also impedes his progress. Henze, who has three dogs himself, set the poem as a 50-minute cantata for bass, baritone and tenor, semi-chorus and orchestra.
(read more after the jump)
The soloists were excellent. Although bass John Tomlinson had not previously sung any Henze, he performed the Stranger as if born to it, cynical and desperate, taming the agonized lines with the gruff command of his dark, hollow voice that seemed sometimes to resound with all the sorrows of history. Even the blazing brasses could not hold him as he powered through the low notes. Sometimes he sang accompanied only by the conductor Antonio Pappano at the piano, like an old-fashioned continuo player rippling the runs of Henze's precise and compellingly rhythmic score.
Tenor Ian Bostridge, a Henze favourite, sang the Dog with such tail-wagging innocence and joy that one wanted to pat him and reward him with chocolate all evening. How humbly he keened at the prospect of a cushioned basket in Werfel’s often comic verse. His pure, high yelp cut above the large orchestra with insistence. Henze’s wit beamed through in the Dog’s duet with the solitary heckelphone, a sad, low double-reed instrument whose solemn pleading was the antithesis of Bostridge's willing sacrifice. Da sterb'ich vor dir hin, (I'm going to die in front of you) he reminds the remorseful Stranger, the way a dog does with its eyes.
Roberto Valentini, from the Santa Cecilia chorus, sang ably in the small but significant baritone part of a police inspector who comes on in a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet carrying a torch and a pistol. A vocal quartet (Maurizio Trementini, Anselmo Fabiani, Gian Paolo Fiocchi and Antonio Mameli, also from the local chorus), having sung their stage directions with impressive force, became policemen too, turning their rifles on the audience but completely missing the Stranger, who was off into the night, condemned, it seems, like the Flying Dutchman never to die but for ever to be on the run.
Before the music started, Pappano introduced the audience to the heckelphone and the Wagner tuba, and demonstrated at the piano certain recurrent chords which would infiltrate the score with reassuring constancy. The Orchestra of Santa Cecilia delivered rich, burnished string tone in chords that shone with radiant dissonance and agile, purposeful counterpoint while exotic colours – a marimba, a set of crisp tom-toms, maracas – presented new ideas on every page.
The work ended with a moment of quiet catharsis as Bostridge's Dog, in unaccompanied spoken-tone, whimpered, Denn die Liebe, die Liebe fängt an (for love, love is just beginning).
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