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HENZE Elegy for Young Lovers
W. H. Auden/Chester Kallman

Hilde Mack Jennifer Rhys-Davies; Elizabeth Zimmer Kate Valentine; Carolina Von Kirchstatten Lucy Schaufer; Toni Reischmann Robert Murray; Gregor Mittenhofer Steven Page; Wilhelm Reischmann William Robert Allenby; Josef Mauer Stephen Kennedy

Director Fiona Shaw; Designer Tom Pye; Lighting Designer Peter Mumford; Video Artist Lynette Wallworth; Conductor Stefan Blunier

ENO/Young Vic at the Young Vic, London, 24 April 2010

- - a savagely witty - and sometimes wryly self-referential - exposé of the creative ego and its insatiable need to feed off all around it - -

For those of us who hadn't the opportunity to do a great deal of homework, this was an uncomfortable evening to have spent in an Alpine inn, chiefly because lack of surtitles rendered a great deal of it all unintelligible (surprising in an ENO co-production) - q.v. Surtitles at last - I knew I was right Anthony Holden in The Observer.

Instead of surtitles, to which there is still resistance in some quarters*, we were distracted by monitor screens of the conductor all around us, coordination between singers & orchestra being given top priority.

Steven Page's tireless ranting in the role created by Fischer-Dieskau as the anti-hero Gregor Mittenhofer was put across clearly enough in his assumption of the egocentric poet's dominating central role ("a bonkers, egomaniacal, bear-fixated tyrant damaging all in his path") whatsonstage, but little could be made out of the Auden/Kallman words shared amongst the female characters, especially those of "the crazed coloratura of Jennifer Rhys-Davies’ indomitable Hilda which grows more preposterous as she grows more lucid" (Edward Seckerson in The Guardian).

After pointing out (and others share my reservations) that videos in concerts, e.g. the Varèse 360° weekend, are all too often gratuitous, "banal and visually minimal", I am pleased to endorse the praise Lynette Wallworth’s evocative video work has evoked, with beautiful ice crystals on screen and Hilda Mack's "visions" on the hotel table, those set against Tom Pye’s interior/exterior floor space with a menacing fissure representing the perils of the glacier. And especially the gorgeous "ice clock" - which Mittenhofer shatters, so that it has to be recreated for each performance...

Space is limited for the Young Vic's popular short opera seasons; Henze's Elegy is musically difficult and would benefit from a different collaboration; revival on the main Coliseum/ENO stage with the orchestra in its pit, the surtitles as usual there, and for those who can't get to London, a R3 broadcast supported with the libretto on request, a regular BBC feature in earlier Third Programme days...

Meanwhile, it would be good to have Oliver Knussen's 2000 recording ** made easily available again in association with Fiona Shaw's production of Elegy for Young Lovers; perhaps it includes English texts?

Peter Grahame Woolf

*"not enough words are audible. Surtitles would get in the way; better enunciation is the answer." [The Times]

** ETCETERA KTC 9000 CD 11 Lisa Saffer · Rosemary Hardy · Mary King · Christopher Gillett · Roderick Kennedy · Davin Wilson-Johnson · Adrian Brine · Schönberg-Ensemble · Oliver Knussen · Live-recording VPRO Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

A copy of this CD recording (but without texts, however) has been supplied by the publishers and listening to it has cleared up my doubts about this opera and its Young Vic production. It is impressively focused and sufficient words are clear to mostly follow the complex developments without the overload of Fiona Shaw's visual distractions. The orchestral textures are indeed beautiful and hugely inventive, and I can only think that several of the other reviewers may have been familiar with one or other recording.

The most helpful commentary of all I have found is on a pseudonymous blog, "Classical Iconoclast" 25 April: - - Mittenhofer is Auden's attack on Britten, where it hurts - - orchestrally extremely sophisticated - - surface lyricism eroded by twisted melodies, angularities that erode sentimentality before it has a chance to take root - - many good moments but - - too many moments, one after another, without any real focus - - overall impact is overload - - all piled up they wipe each other out.- - the ever-widening crack in the floor is lost among the debris of bear suits, projections on tables, flickering lights, period what-nots - - some serve a purpose, some confuse - - paring it down might be more effective. Perhaps when this production is revived the focus can be sharpened and made more acute - -

Fischer-Dieskau created the role of Gregor Mittenhofer; sample his recording on line

Photos: Sarah Lee/ENO
1.Page. 2. Rhys-Davies & Page
3. Murray, Valentine & Schaufer