mon 24/02/2020

Phaedra, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Phaedra, Barbican

Phaedra, Barbican

An overly clean, efficient and, at times, vulgar, take from Henze on this lusty old story

Needless to say, the music does not escape an extraordinary and cacophonous transformation. The second act of Phaedra is vital: alive with the real, recorded sounds of the cicada of his Italian garden and of sultry, muggy emanations from the unimpeachable Ensemble Modern conducted by Michael Boder. A set of small drums, violin and oboe suddenly confect a dance. Some time later, a saxophone, Henze's trusty erotic musical emissary, slinks into sound. We are being led through a crepuscular world, a world of saturnine goings on, a far cry from the deadening efficiency and clarity of the opening act.
This divide is there in the libretto too. In the first act we inhabit the clean, quick world of the morning dash. We rattle through the story of Phaedra that most of us might recognise. Hippolyte, son of Theseus, is hit upon by his step-mum Phaedra. He rejects her advances. She cries rape to Theseus, who has Hippolyte murdered. The second act strays from the usual accounts, imaging that Artemis (a top-form Axel Köhler, who I wish was given more of a defined role), Hippolyte's buddy, resurrects Hippolyte and installs him (under a pseudonym) as King of the Forest - after he escapes further machinations from Phaedra and her sharp-tongued hussy sidekick, Aphrodite (sung well and pointfully by Marlis Petersen).
The interest in Phaedra is not in the story itself; it lies instead in the periods of repose, between the plot clambering, where character and ambition are allowed to reveal themselves - or should reveal themselves if actor, director or composer are doing their job right. This was only partially the case in Henze's Phaedra, and, even then, only in the second act.
In the first, there was charm in the set-piece arias, in particular, from John Mark Ainsley, who had a pretty ravishing little number near the very beginning, and in the scene where Phaedra (camped up a little by Maria Riccarda Wesseling) is supposed to be lying on her bed dripping poison into a letter to her husband Theseus, her screwy singing line, wound round by a string quartet of high lyrical lines, resembling the heady, femme fatale feel of a Douglas Sirk movie.
But mostly it rattled along far too fast, and far too disjointedly - with each change of tone, scenario or character heralded (and also, cordoned off) by a percussion interlude - with absolutely no sense of momentum or intelligible interlocking, layering or thematic drive, for it to be of more than passing interest. What we were meant to take away from the story - and we were at a great disadvantage seeing the work semi-staged - beat me. Beware of mad, old lusty cows, was all I got from it. It wasn't helped by an overworked, over-stuffed libretto.
There were even difficulties with the music. Compared to his subtle, complicated evocations of the sensuous, Henze's approach to energy, confrontation and busyness was rudimentary. His uncritical attachment to certain traditional rhythmic ways was too safe to conjure up the messy, sweaty, multi-limbed nature of a faceoff. The vulgarity that modernists accuse him of, the lazy or tasteless falling back on certain hackneyed musical ideas, cannot be denied. There is, however, usually enough of quality going on around these lapses that sustain interest.
The second act almost bore this out, with its Stockhausen-like electronic interjections, its perfectly crepuscular evocations and its moments of spaced-out pastoral pleasure. But, as with almost all of his works in the Henze Day yesterday, the ending was a clichéd horror.
There is a reason why Henze is still regarded by many as the finest stage composer alive. But, sadly, the evidence for it won't be found in Phaedra.

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters