No opera is properly dressed these days without a gauze screen. In Henze's The Prince of Homburg, which opened in a much-toured production at ENO last week, the gauze stays down from start to finish. As metaphor for the plot, which begins with a dream and turns into a living nightmare, it's apt enough. As a symbol for the opera as a whole a brick wall would do better. Henze's fantastically complicated scheme, alternating 12-note serialism with what he calls "the beautiful old harmonies of yesterday" (the distinction passed me by, alas), not only defies aural comprehension but fails to lift the story above turgid melodrama. Set in 1675 at the battle of Brandenburg, a Prussian general, despite victory, is sentenced to death for military bungling. The play from which the libretto is drawn probed the hero's dilemma: whether to save his skin or admit culpability. Henze's score reduces delicate argument to tedious rant. ENO's soloists battle heroically with the one-paced see-saw of the vocal writing, but sink under Nickolaus Lenhoff's undistinguished direction. In the title role Peter Coleman-Wright signals extremes by leaping onto the nearest table; as his lover Natalie, Susan Bullock (right) squeezes lyricism of a sort from a miserable part. Static, bombastic, dour, this is "modern" opera that will send ENO's most venturesome audiences scurrying back to Strauss.

Jenny Gilbert