May 22, 2004
Staatsoper Unter den Linden

A Neon Mountain of Impending Doom

Henze's 1961 opera at the Staatsoper


Hans Werner Henze
Elegie für junge Liebende


Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Conductor: Philippe Jordan
Director: Christian Pade
Stage Designer, Costume Designer: Alexander Lintl
Light: Franz Peter David
Dramaturgy: Regula Rapp

Gregor Mittenhofer: Andreas Schmidt
Dr. Wilhelm Reischmann: Günter Missenhardt
Toni Reischmann: Stephan Rügamer
Elisabeth Zimmer: Katherina Müller
Carolina Gräfin von Kirchstetten: Rosemarie Lang
Hilda Mack: Caroline Stein
Joseph Mauer: Johannes Richard Voelkel

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A Neon Mountain of Impending Doom

Henze's 1961 opera at the Staatsoper

by Nancy Chapple

Hans Werner Henze's Elegie für junge Liebende (Elegy for Young Lovers) was first performed in 1961. It is a story of the alienation and isolation of an apparently great but misanthropic poet, appreciated by the critics and tolerated, sometimes detested by those around him - his patron the countess, his young muse Elisabeth and his personal doctor. The scene is a fancy spa-like hotel in the mountains (shades of Mann's Zauberberg). Gregor Mittenhofer draws poetic inspiration - practically takes dictation - from a disturbed woman named Hilda Mack whose husband disappeared into the mountains the day of their marriage 40 years earlier.

The emotional interaction between the characters - and thus also its representation in the stage décor - is sparing, almost ascetic. The music and the story are not about interaction, but rather living parallel lives, driven by varying motives. Each character is isolated, stuck in his or her own dreams and delusions. Even the couple that initiates a romance, the doctor's son and the muse, do not come across as passionate, though intended to represent young love. They're hampered by the presence of the older characters; their only attempt to come closer together is stymied by a sudden storm that arises on the mountain. What feelings are expressed are shrouded in cold (the ever-present mountain), emotional distance, and loneliness (abandoned Hilda, the patroness living vicariously through the poet, the embittered Mittenhofer himself).

Elisabeth and Toni sing one lovely duet in an intimated canon, just a few beats apart. But otherwise, when more than one person sings, the singing overlaps rather than intertwines. Often the ensemble sings individual lines, layers of sound each accompanied by specific voices in the orchestra. This is clearly due to the characters' inability to interact.

The libretto brings up some interesting philosophical issues. Mittenhofer describes the poetic process - "I can never feel, think, see, hear without asking 'How can I use it?' And abstracting it in iambic feet and rhymes ... over time, all that remains is what does and does not serve song". We sense that the way he practices his art is a substitute for living and feeling. When Mittenhofer rips into critics and how little they know and how little he respects them, including an unusual operatic tirade against typos in the typed manuscript of his poems, the music turns very energetic. The negative comment Mittenhofer reads aloud from one of his critics - "Sinnliche Träume eines kraftlosen Greises" [sensual dreams of a feeble old man], becomes an appropriate description of the inadequacy of letting the creation of art ultimately come to predominate over living.

A lot is spoken to sparkly accompaniment in triangle, piano and celeste rather than sung. Often the music is simply a means to tell the story. We don't notice it much, as music and text are so completely integrated.

Caroline Stein did an impressive job of the difficult, very high role of Hilda Mack, with a flashy voice. Almost more than how they sung, one noticed the convincing acting on the part of the plagued countess (Rosemarie Lang) and the meddling, emotionally inadequate doctor (Günter Missenhardt). Katherina Müller as Elisabeth is required to play a particularly distanced and self-contained role. Andreas Schmidt as the poet is credible in his typical self-importance and isolation; his singing is certainly adequate to the role, though not extraordinary. Philippe Jordan, the production's young and dynamic conductor, did a great job at getting Henze's colors out of the orchestra.

This is a well thought out production. A shining crystal mountain and the innovative use of cold neon tubing to depict the mountain's threatening contours appropriately reflect the spooky, glittering music. The color scheme is gray, silver and white, with occasional touches of peach (the muse's dress) or blood red (the ball of yarn Hilda rolls and unrolls and snips at with scissors, sometimes wrapping it around others). The costumes convincingly set the action at the beginning of the last century, and the stage design is coherent with the work's bleak messages.

The work is sung and spoken very clearly with supertitles in German. The audience seemed to love the performance, and accorded Henze several bows.

(Unfortunately, the Staatsoper does not provide us with photos)