Henze, Elegy for Young Lovers, English National Opera at the Young Vic

At an inn in the Austrian Alps Hilda Mack waits for her husband. 40 years ago he went climbing without, it seems, declaring that he might be some time.

So she waits - knitting, contemplating, hallucinating, while the minutes and hours tick by. Each year the celebrated poet Gregor Mittenhofer comes to visit drawing inspiration from her visions. He essentially feeds off her; he steals her grief. Until, that is, her husband’s corpse is retrieved from the Hammerhorn glacier. Then his focus turns on his mistress Elizabeth and his doctor’s son Toni: first their love, then their deaths. His poem “The Young Lovers” will be more effective as an Elegy.

W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto for Hans Werner Henze’s operatic dream-play cum melodrama has more than an air of the confessional about it. Essentially it takes one to know one, says Auden, and in Fiona Shaw’s terrifically full-on staging his egocentricity is centrestage, his “characters in search of an author” merely minions in the service of the poet Mittenhofer’s art. All are disposable once their parts in his magnum opus have been fulfilled.

In Tom Pye’s vividly effective design and Lynette Wallworth’s evocative video work that drama is effectively played out on an ice crevice whose ever widening fissure threatens to swallow them at any moment. An elaborate ice clock chimes the hours and when Hilda’s waiting is finally over, the frustrated Mittenhofer vindictively shatters it. It’s a big enough coup in itself (the audience is teased into wondering if it really is an ice sculpture) but Shaw deliciously undercuts it with Hilda flippantly freshening her drink with the ice. “Put that in your sonnet, Duckie”, she later mocks.

The immediacy, the urgency and heat of inspiration (or the lack of it), are beautifully caught in each imperative moment of the show. The method in the madness of Mittenhofer (a harassed Lear-like Steven Page), the crazed coloratura of Jennifer Rhys-Davies’ indomitable Hilda which grows more preposterous as she grows more lucid, the lyric flights of Kate Valentine and Robert Murray’s “lovers”, and the refuge of fierce efficiency that is Lucy Schaufer’s brilliant Carolina – Mittenhofer’s secretary. Her final unravelling is chilling to behold. And all the while the brittle and crystalline beauty of Henze’s guitar and tuned percussion flecked orchestra shimmers and galvanises under Stefan Blunier’s energetic direction.

Great librettos make great opera, of course, and Auden finally achieves just that in the “elegiac” moment where his (or should I say Mittenhofer’s) dying young lovers imagine an old age they will never live to see. Funny and deeply poignant.

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