Hans Werner Henze: L’Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe
Alfred Muff, Matthias Goerne, Laura Aikin, John Mark Ainsley
Wiener Philharmoniker, Wiener Staatsopern Chor, Markus Stenz (cond.)
EuroArts 2053929 [DVD]
Henze’s magical opera L’Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (L’Upupa or the Triumph of Filial Love) bears the subtitle, “a German comedy in eleven tableaux based on the Arabic.” The “Arabic” here refers to a traditional dream-tale from Syria, around which Henze crafted his libretto (his first such effort as a librettist). Like dreams, which condense from memory several images (of people, objects, actions) that share underlying characteristics into single composite dream figures, L’Upupa condenses many stories and characters into its over determined images. Far from pastiche, however, Henze’s condensations cohere in a compelling tale.
The most overt remembered images hearken back to Mozart. With an Arabian setting, a combination of sung and spoken text, and a story of young lovers overcoming trials to be worthy of their union, L’Upupa reads like Die Zauberflöte alla Turca, a fitting tribute for a work commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. In short, Kasim (Tamino), traveling with a friendly Demon (a winged Papageno-like companion), encounters the lecherous ruler Malik (Monostatos?), and then rescues Badi’at (Pamina) from Dijab (a thinly disguised Sarastro).
A series of world premier performances of L’Upupa, given at the Salzburg Kleines Festpielhaus in August of 2003, have been expertly compiled and recorded on a DVD, directed by Brian Large. In this recording, an Old Man (sung by Alfred Muff) introduces the tale in a monologue that is perhaps a bit too lengthy. He recounts how the beautiful hoopoe bird (L’Upupa) had visited his window every day until he attempted to catch it, where upon it attacked him and flew away. He outlines a plan to send his three sons after the bird, but knowing his oldest to be a liar and his second son to be untrustworthy, the old man places his faith in the youngest who will no doubt persevere through the trials and bring back the golden hoopoe. Commissioning the trio of sons in this way brings to mind the parable of the talents, one of a number of biblical resonances in the opera; and the trio itself, with the youngest being the dearest, evokes other Ur-stories from Cinderella to King Lear.
The two older brothers (sung by Axel Köler and Anton Scharinger) comically mark out polarized registers, often articulating in the same rhythms their nefarious schemes: firstly, to escape the trials by leaving the dirty work to their younger brother, and later to do him harm and take credit for finding the treasured bird. Kasim, the youngest (skillfully sung by Matthias Goerne) leaves his older brothers behind in his search for the bird. Along his journey he encounters the Demon, a fallen angel (sung tenderly and sensitively by John Mark Ainsley), who becomes his traveling companion. The Demon, the least stereotyped character, develops a complex relationship with Kasim that proves to be the most interesting one in the opera.
Part II introduces Badi’at, (sprightly sung by Laura Aikin) the beautiful imprisoned Jewish girl, a welcome female presence in a cast dominated by men (with the exception of Malik, a trouser role expertly sung by Hanna Schwarz). Aside from her conspicuous identity as a Jewish girl in an Arabic tale, Badi’at is an uncomplicatedly one-dimensional character. With sweet naiveté, she immediately falls in love with Kasim, and their duet, “How beautiful she is … how beautiful you are,” intones the most lovely and lyrical music of the opera. An awkwardly adolescent coupling ensues and Dijab (sung authoritatively by Günter Missenhardt) has them captured and bound together back to back (with masking tape!). Badi’at skillfully pleads their case, managing to sing with grace while struggling in her unwieldy position. Eventually Dijab sympathizes with the couple and frees them, and they make their way back to where the older brothers wait, still idly playing poker. The brothers, in a move that resonates with another biblical story, (this one involving Joseph, a pit, and a stained cloak) trick Kasim into climbing down a well for water and then they throw the rope in after him. The ever-self-sacrificing Badi’at jumps in after her love. Again, director Dieter Dorn creates a visual spectacle in which the couple expertly executes the difficult task of singing while hanging awkwardly from the well wall. Luckily the Demon returns and rescues them and accompanies them back to the Great Gate. Another moment of exquisite lyricism marks the Demon’s sentimental departure. His “Dear Kasim, my old friend …” packs the kind of epic, deeply felt emotion that one listens for in opera. Kasim promises to bring the Demon a red apple (again ripe with symbolism) from the tree of life in his homeland in return for his kindness. Once reunited with his father, Kasim postpones his marriage and leaves to fulfill this obligation to his friend. The opera ends with the Old Man and Badi’at watching Kasim depart to the strains of an instrumental epilogue.
With all of these dream-like condensations, one might expect more overt references to other music, but Henze’s atonal process resists quotation. There are, however, notable allusions, two of which I include here. When Kasim visits the Kingdom of Pate, the garden flower chorus sings a song of “bitter sorrow” with madrigalism worthy of Monteverdi. Later, when the couple is trapped in the well (an overtly biblical reference) an unexpected pipe organ solo pierces the instrumental color, underscoring the religious milieu. In general, Henze’s music expresses the restrained economy of a chamber opera, and yet he makes use of a wide range of colors from piano to pipe organ, percussion to prerecorded bird sounds. At any given moment, though, the texture is characterized by sparkling clarity and filled with active gestures. The only musical disappointment comes at the end of Part I, when a well-earned surging climax is cut off too soon and left to fade away.
Interludes between the eleven tableaux articulate short bursts of scene-change music, while the camera focuses on identically placed side shots of the conductor, Markus Stenz, and a portion of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra. Although a typical visual solution for scene-change music, the sight of tuxedoed musicians interrupts the fable’s diegesis. Still, these disruptions frame the scenes in a way that highlights the tableau structure.
Other oddities of the tale act as dream-like non-sequiturs. Improbable words like “napalm,” “pneumatic drills” and “nudists,” along with unusual props like Polaroid photos in a setting otherwise free of modern technology, stick out of the fairy tale drama. Even with these disruptions, this production is truly as enjoyable to watch as it is to hear. Colorful and delightful staging is one of this production’s strengths. The repeated curves of the bell tower, raked stage, well, and flower prison lend a welcome continuity. When flying with Kasim on his back, the Demon unfolds massive wings that fill the stage in a truly dramatic fashion. The pair of winged images — hoopoe bird and fallen angel — helps us compare the two, and we realize that it is Kasim, not the father, who has won the better prize.
This opera production is pleasurable on all levels. Vivid images of imaginative scenes fill the stage, complemented by clever action, lighting, and costuming. Skillful singing and acting, supported by colorful music, advance the story with beauty and grace. Neither deep nor grand, the tale has a resonant quality that enhances its economy. The condensations from literature, scripture, and other music lend a thoughtful nature to the fable, encouraging us to revalue the three kinds of true love presented: filial, friendly, and passionate. I found this opera both enchanting and sensitively executed.
Shersten Johnson, Ph.D.
University of St. Thomas
Hans Werner Henze: L’Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe