Two summers ago, Hans Werner Henze premiered a newly commissioned opera, purportedly his last, for the Salzburg Festival, L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (Upupa, or the triumph of filial love). Andrew Clements reviewed the production (Excellent adventure, August 15, 2003) for The Guardian, and Shersten Johnson reviewed the new DVD (HENZE: L’Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, June 28, 2005) for Opera Today. This summer, that opera was produced at the Opéra de Lyon from June 24 to July 2. I found only one major review of the production (Une «Huppe» colorée, June 28), by Eric Dahan for Libération (my translation):
Under the arches bleached out by the desert sun or in luxuriant gardens bathed in moonlight, this is the story of a father who wants to capture a legendary bird, which represents the sum of all his joys and desires, and because of that puts the life of a devoted son in danger. Inspired by an Arab tale, which takes up a famous Biblical episode in the life of King Solomon, Upupa is a chance for the composer, raised at Darmstadt but now at a distance from orthodox serialism, to place his name in a direct line with the Mozart of The Magic Flute.Have any of Henze's operas ever been performed here in the United States? I had only to look in my press materials from Santa Fe Opera to learn that six American premieres of Henze's operas were given right here. (Thanks to Garth Trinkl, who noted that in the comments section of this post before I got back to it, as well as a production in San Francisco.) I'm still looking for others.
By the theme of a voyage of initiation full of tests, which leads the hero on the immense black wings of a demon or makes him confront masked warriors brandishing kendo staffs, much more by its musical language. This is a fully serial language but enriched by major and minor seconds, changes of themes, and unexpected colors, from which Henze weaves an ultrapolyphonic and motorlike score, through the use of wind ostinatos, characterized by a strong density of events and a rhythmic verve reminiscent of Bartók and Stravinsky, and finally a delicate exoticism through the use of Chinese percussion.
Playing the allegorical fairytale card, Dieter Dorn's direction and Jürgen Rose's sets and costumes are in harmony with Henze's sensibility and with his understanding of his art as a consolation or redemption of a destroyed childhood. This relates to him because in 1945, when he returned to Germany, he learned that his father would never come back from the front. In Lyon, baritone Detlef Roth replaces Mathias Goerne in the role of the son, Al Kasim, and countertenor Fabrice di Folco replaces Axel Kohler in that of Adschib, but returning singers include the American soprano Laura Aikin as Princess Badi'at and Alfred Muff as the father, in this beautiful odyssey from Sprechgesang to cantabile and from the darkness of torment to the light of reconciliation.