Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

It comprised two operas which date from opposite ends of Henze’s career but which share themes such
as the decline in religious certainty and the rise in scientific confidence and
optimism, and also create similar sound worlds — a dense chromaticism
combined with naturally unfolding melodic arcs, and appealing colourings and

Originally composed for radio, Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor)
dates from 1951 and is based upon a short story by Franz Kafka, while
Phaedra was written for the Berlin State Opera in 2007, five years
before Henze’s death, and relates the tragedy of Phaedra and her step-son
Hippolytus as told by Euripedes and others, developing the Classical tale to
depict the return of Hippolytus from the dead to a world which he finds
strange, disorientating and terrifying.

Henze adapted the radio version of Ein Landarzt into a monodrama
for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Baritone Martin H‰ssler showed great courage in
taking on the challenge of the role of the country doctor who, woken in the
night by an urgent call to attend a sick patient ten miles away, finds himself
in a succession of ever more bizarre predicaments. He becomes indebted to a
mysterious groom who arrives with a team of horses and who promptly bites the
face of his maid, Rosa; he is transported as if by magic to the house of the
sick child, who then implores the doctor to let him die; he is forced by the
village elders to lie in bed beside the child and threatened with death if he
does not heal the boy; ultimately he finds himself condemned to spend eternity
struggling to return home.

I wondered whether it would be possible to ‘act’ this surreal tale —
or if it was indeed even necessary — but H‰ssler’s strong dramatic
presence and intensely focused musical delivery immediately banished any
doubts. The stage set comprised just a few items of simple furniture — a bed,
a desk, a cabinet — but as the baritone moved around them, leaned and stood
on them, his posture and body language created a dramatic world. He displayed
impressive physical and musical stamina and concentration. The vocal part is a
demanding one, through-composed and with extensive use of
sprechgesang; but the pitch was convincingly well-centred — and
confidently projected against an austere instrumental accompaniment, played
with precision and clarity by the Guildhall Orchestra, which faithfully evoked
the threat and confusion of the doctor’s nightmare.

H‰ssler’s German diction was exemplary, and a summarising English
translation was projected in large font onto the black back wall — creating a
slightly alienating effect, not unlike an epic placard. There is much relation
of direct speech in the text of the monodrama, and the baritone skilfully used
tone and colour to create rhetorical effects which were dramatic and animating.
He used his voice not only to make himself a character in his own narration,
but he brought the other characters before us too; the soft head voice which
embodied the enervating cry of the child was full of pathos without being
overly sentimental.

As the Country Doctor relates his experiences he is conversing with himself
— questioning events and the reliability of his own memory of his
experiences, much like a Schubert lied — as much as communicating with his
audience, and H‰ssler powerfully conveyed the sense of the doctor’s
volatility and disquiet in the face of the grotesque twists which turn an
ordinary event into a metaphysical mystery.

Phaedra is a larger scale work — Henze termed it a ‘concert
opera’, which in the first act innovatively presents the story of Phaedra’s
tragic love for her step-son, Hippolytus, and in the second, sees Hippolytus
transported to modern-day Italy and brought back to life — under the name of
Virbius, by the goddess Artemis — only to find that his consciousness is
fragmented and kaleidoscopic. Hippolytus’ identity becomes ever more abstract
until it is subsumed into nature itself.

Director Ashley Dean and his designer, Cordelia Chisholm, adopt an
imaginative and engaging approach. The first act recreates the ruins of the
labyrinth, the grey circular centre of which evoking the sacred horse-shoe
arenas of Classical tragedy. The transformation from the ‘Morning’ of Act 1
to Act 2’s ‘Evening’, and from the stark, grey, antique past to the
present-day, is effected by the injection of a lurid yellow-green glow which
infuses the circular operating theatre (lighting design, Mark Doubleday).
Classical gods and goddesses are translated into modern day ‘miracle
workers’ — nurses, surgeons — and Hippolytus is revived, given new limbs,
a new identity. Dean avoids ‘Rocky Horror Show’ grotesquery, and
Hippolytus’ ‘resurrection’ is disturbing but not ludicrous.

In subsequent scenes Hippolytus, struggles to recognise and know his
‘self’, and Dan Shorten’s video designs were very effective in creating
an ambience of alienation; tele-screens rose and fell projecting a fragmented
sequence of images. The moment when Hippolytus becomes the King of the Woods
was startlingly theatrical, as the disorientating static fuzz morphed into
vibrant, clean-cut flowers plucked from a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Henze’s lean melodic lines were satisfyingly communicated by the cast of
five singers. Tenor Lawrence Thackeray exhibited considerable musico-dramatic
awareness, even if he didn’t quite have the vocal shine to convey
Hippolytus’ heroism. But, his singing unwaveringly balanced lyricism and
vigour; this was a fine performance. In Act 1, Phaedra finds Hippolytus asleep
in a thicket and sings of her passion for her step-son; Ailsa Mainwaring used
the full range of her soprano — from its dusky depths to its gleaming top —
to convey the intensity of her sensual desires. Mainwaring was also able to
communicate Phaedra’s unpredictability, as she and Laura Ruhl-Vidal’s
strongly assertive Aphrodite swore jealous revenge against the one they love.
The countertenor role of Artemis was sung by Meili Li, who captured the strange
beauty of the goddess’s voice.

The opera’s end is both transcendental and inconclusive. The Minotaur
sings, ‘We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance’, and
bass Rick Zwart’s hymn was rich and life-affirming. It was a shame that the
spell had been broken by the descent of the curtain at end of previous scene.

The instrumental playing was again impressive. Henze’s instrumental voices
are quite soloistic, and the transparency and depth of the woodwind and brass
textures was dramatic — they were capable of powerfully creating the mythic
earthquake, but also of spinning sinuous threads of sound. Conductor Timothy
Redmond paced things well: the urgency of the first act gave way to more
mystical meanderings in the second — there’s a lot of symbolism and
metaphor but not much action in Christian Lehnert’s libretto — but Redmond
sustained the dramatic moment by foregrounding the textural variety of the
score, as groups of instruments formed sub-sets of colour.

The GSMD made two operas that are ‘not quite operas’ seem entirely at
home on the stage.

Claire Seymour

Casts and production information:

Ein Landzart : Landarzt, Martin H‰ssler.

Phaedra : Aphrodite, Laura Ruhi-Vidal; Phaedra, Aisla
Mainwaring; Artemis, Meili Li; Hippolytus, Lawrence Thackeray; Minotaur, Rich

Timothy Redmond, conductor; Ashley Dean, director; Cordelia Chisholm,
designer; Mark Doubleday, lighting designer; Victoria Newlyn, movement
director; Dan Shorten, video designer. Guildhall School of Music and Drama,
Silk Street Theatre, Barbican, London, Monday 8th June 2015.

image_description=Hans Werner Henze [Photo by Badische Zeitung]
product_title=Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Hans Werner Henze [Photo by Badische Zeitung]