Opera: The Prince of Homburg / ENO Coliseum, London

Click to follow
Though the spirit of the times may be somewhat dormant at present, the pacifist Zeitgeist that ran through the 1960s is felt in much of the music from that period. Britten's War Requiem of 1961 is the obvious example. But predating the Requiem by a year, sitting on the cusp of the decade, is The Prince of Homburg by Hans Werner Henze, with a libretto fashioned from the play by the 19th-century dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. The opera has proved to be a popular repertoire piece on the continent. Here in Britain, however, it has not been heard since the 1962 UK premiere given by a touring company at Sadler's Wells.

It was therefore an audacious act on the part of English National Opera to revive the work in celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. A more familiar piece would have been a safe bet, but in taking a risk, the Coliseum has unveiled an important link in the chain of the composer's journey from 1950s radical to modern romantic. Kleist's story, set at the battle of Fehrbellin in 1675, concerns the conflict between the iron discipline of Prussian military society and the dreams and desires of the Prince. It's a fable of the individual crushed by authority. But there are also submerged elements that relate to the world of existential fantasy. Luchino Visconti pointed them out to the composer. Then his friend, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, fashioned the play into a text where the military background remains important, yet is also the means to glorify the dreamer.

The vast blue gauze stretched between the Coliseum stage and the auditorium in this visiting production, first heard in Munich's Cuvillies Theatre in 1992, itself announces that throughout, we see darkly into another world and time. Production values are basic; benches and tables, essential field equipment, are among the few visual embellishments to distract the eye from its focus on the intense debate between the characters. A dozen doors form entrances and exits around the curved back wall, but above the heads of the singers on the broad ENO stage there is only space arching upwards like a Piranesi interior.

Within this area the drama unfolds to music that is vintage Henze in its blend of serial and tonal styles. On Saturday, the opening night, the intended distinction between them, harsh noises for the army against soothing tones for the impulses of the Prince, seemed less important than the compelling sense of profuse, ever-rolling invention. Though arias, recitatives and choruses were vessels for the action, their contours seemed likewise dissolved into the ongoing sweep of sound that made much of piano, trumpet and tom-tom sonorities.

They sometimes proved too much for the singers, though not for baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, dashing and poetical as the Prince, nor for soprano Susan Bullock, who sang the role of the Princess Natalie of Orange, his beloved. Tenor William Cochran played a sturdy, full-voiced Elector or Brandenburg, complete with splendid dressing gown. Elgar Howarth conducted with the same prodigious skill and insight that he brings to so many 20th- century scores.

n Performances continue 26, 28 June and 1, 5 July. Booking: 0171-632 8300. Radio 3 will broadcast the performance on 1 July, the day of Hans Werner Henze's 70th birthday