Henze, Elegy for Young Lovers, English National Opera at the Young Vic
Sunday 25 April 2010
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 2 Pub landlord captures moment customer falls over on CCTV – just like Del Boy did on Only Fools and Horses
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 How to gain confidence and maximise your sexual potential
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: We're back alright, but on very familiar ground
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
Eurovision 2015: What date is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Game of Thrones, season 5 episode 4, review: Sansa in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
Andy McSmith's Sketch: Feisty audience is the real star of an enlightening show