A living myth

PROMS: Hans Werner Henze's `Venus and Adonis'; Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3
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Last week was a good one for myths and rituals. While the general public enacted the age-old formula of raising a fallen idol to the heavens, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz at the Albert Hall on Friday, showed the lasting dramatic power of the ancient modes of action. Amid the turmoil that was Kensington, they gave the British premiere in concert performance of Hans Werner Henze's one-act opera, Venus and Adonis. Here, too, fragile beauty, not unmixed with hubris, falls prey to lust, is hunted down, then raised to starry immortality.

The yeast of the old myths, it seems, is neither dead nor dormant, but working powerfully among us. Henze himself, in an earlier opera The Bassarids, dealt with sinister types of ritual frenzy that might also concern us when manias occur in apparently non-violent contexts. Venus and Adonis, a story based on the triangle of love, is cathartic in the Aristotelian sense of mingling fear and pity to release our tangled emotions. If that seemed to be what was happening all around us on Friday, it was a coincidence that only affirmed how deeply plumbed are the well-springs of drama in our daily lives.

As it happens, the opera was rapturously received at its Munich world premiere in January this year. The British debut of Henze's Second Sonata for strings, given last Wednesday at the Proms by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, showed the composer inspired by Renaissance forms and the music of Gesualdo. For Venus and Adonis, the threefold presence was of Monteverdi and of Shakespeare; and of Hans-Ulrich Treichel, whose libretto, based on the Shakespearean poem, was a model of words adapted to the functions of music.

The score was the thing, however; and from it, one can report that in his eighth decade, Hans Werner Henze, like other long-lived composers, remains joyously fecund. Moreover, the sense in this piece was not of self-repetition, but of something new emerging. Like King Stag, an earlier operatic tribute to the composer's adopted Italy, Venus and Adonis seemed charged with vividly immediate feeling. The landscapes painted in the madrigal choruses for six singers, though timeless in subject, felt drawn from life - sunrises observed, as it were, from Henze's study window. Flecks of sound from cello or vibraphone sharpened their heady magic.

Elsewhere, as when cool alto flute showed Adonis placed in the frozen heavens, the composer's skills at word painting rivalled those of Monteverdi. (Excerpts from his Eighth Book of Madrigals, those of love and war, were beautifully given by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players in the first half of the Prom.)

But the strongest impression left by Venus and Adonis was of pace and concision. Treichel's text, a ballet in a play within a play, left room for pithy dialogue between the Prima Donna (soprano Evelyn Herlitzius) and Hero-Player (baritone Ekkehard Wlaschiha). Boleros and dance-songs kept up the speed. Finally, to radiant music for horns and strings, Adonis (tenor Christopher Ventris) was translated to the stars. "Are you lonely?" the chorus asked. "I was lonely when my feet touched the earth," he replied. "I was lonely, when a heart beat within me."

Nicholas Williams

Hans Werner Henze fact file

1926: born on 1 July in Gutersloh, Westphalia

1945: After wartime service as a radio-operator in the German army is captured by the advancing British army

1951: composes first opera, Boulevard Solitude, a re-working of Manon Lescaut

1953: leaves Germany; settles on the island of Ischia

1956: collaborates with Frederick Ashton on the ballet Ondine (premiere: Covent Garden, 1958). Moves from Ischia to Naples

1951: collaborates with WH Auden and Chester Kallman on the opera Elegy for Young Lovers (original English language premiere: Glyndebourne, 1961)

1965: collaborates with Auden and Kallman on opera The Bassarids, a re-working of Euripides' Bacchae

1968: German premiere of The Raft of the Medusa cancelled as a result of political demonstrations

1969: first visit to Cuba. Begins El Cimarrn

1976: collaborates with Edward Bond on the political parable We Come to the River (premiere: Covent Garden, 12 July)

1978: incidental music to Bond's Trojan drama, The Woman

1980: collaborates with Bond on opera The English Cat

1988: founds Munich International Festival of New Music-Theatre

1990: composes opera Das verratene Meer, after Yukio Mishima

1997: scheduled premiere of Symphony No 9: Berlin, 11 Sept