Opera: Elegy for Young Lovers Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
Auden and Kallman's libretto for Hans Werner Henze's 1961 opera Elegy for Young Lovers is rich enough in its imagery to give pause for thought. Even in The Bassarids, the trio's subsequent collaboration, which proved one of the glories of English National Opera's fledgling years at the London Coliseum, there are moments where their expanded, slightly dense text threatens the crucial pacing of one of Euripides' sparest, most skilfully contrived plots.

Some might sense a whiff of that here, too. Yet somehow the crystallised libretto of Elegy for Young Lovers, for all its Group Theatre high-jinks and bursts of verbal wizardry, skirts such pitfalls, and, thanks to Henze's score - one of the most deliciously lyrical inspirations in all 20th-century opera - the plot's Ibsenesque unfolding seems as translucent as the melting glacier ice and falling snow that furnish its central images of stasis and transition.

For it is the never-ending cycle of death into life, and winter (via initiation and sacrifice) into spring - the Germanic Baldur myth - which makes Henze's opera so entrancing, in the same kind of way that Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage is.

A brief, quick broadside: my hazy memories of early recordings suggest there is, amid the skein of Henze's writing, more dynamic contrast (and hence mood-swing) than Markus Stenz allowed to peer out in Act 1. Stenz's conducting - wholly abreast of the score, so that every nuance and cryptic Henzean tangent was transmuted into ravishing sound - gave us nifty shifts of pacing (at racier moments, we might be in a Brecht-Weill number-opera). Yet the potent orchestral transition in Act 3 - spiritually akin to Berg and Britten alike - only confirmed what a tight dynamic rein Stenz had applied from the outset.

The opera is, to be sure, a deliberate slow crescendo, from winter madness to "spring awakening". But more peaks and troughs (and, for all the splendid clarity of the singers' English words - dare I say it? - surtitles) might have helped early on to reassure Birmingham's normally highly receptive, though not unapprehensive, audience.

Given such gifted, magical individual players as the London Sinfonietta contains, one longed for more solo work: true, it was there - cadenza- like bursts of solo violin, an off-stage brass elegy heralding seasonal shift. More often, it was collaborative: a melting, and dramatically telling, recurrent use of paired violins and viola; or those mesmerising passages where percussion, horn and woodwind connived, in various permutations, to produce an unnerving sensation of time-warp.

The voices, without chorus, are Henze's solo instruments: and what heart- warming strands he spins for them. The Sinfonietta's team was a fine one: Susannah Waters, together with the Met's Jon Garrison, a CBSO veteran, as the opera's beautifully voiced and young(ish) lovers, whose function it is to break the emotional ice and pay for it with their lives on the dreaded "Hammerhorn"; Susan Bickley, a varied, well-delivered Countess; Quentin Hayes, fresh from his triumph in Britten's Church Parables, perfectly tuned, incisive and meticulously prepared as Gregor Mittenhofer - a Faustian literary figure in direct line of descent from Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkuhn, whose Mephistophelean aspect emerges only later in a crucial late throwaway remark (such a line would be a match for Euripides); and Louisa Kennedy- Richardson, soaring resplendently as the infirm Hilda Mack, Auden and Kallman's Miss Havisham, whose bridegroom took a presumed icy mountain plunge half a century earlier.

Hilda's confronting of the truth opens the door to her belated "cure" and to the launch, via the doomed lovers, of a fresh cycle. Her crucial relationship to Mittenhofer (she is his muse for the poem he is creating - which is, in a sense, the opera) seemed rather sidelined by an otherwise sensible concert staging.

Yet like Britten, whose scores for The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw came more than once to mind (Mittenhofer could almost be Britten's precocious Miles, 40 years on), Henze reserves some of the action for music alone. And to what stunning effect.

There are good reasons for a commercial recording to be made of this admirable Elegy for Young Lovers (the live performance already had just a mite too much of the recording studio about it). Quite a lot of the normally courageous Birmingham audience fled at the intervals. That surprised me - they wouldn't have deserted Simon Rattle; and Markus Stenz deserved every ounce as much trust.

BBC Radio 3 are to broadcast the performance early next year. Those who can catch it then have a treat in store.