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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Der Prinz von Homburg, Opera in Three Acts (1960, revised 1991) [114:00]
Stefan Margita, tenor (Elector of Brandenburg)
Helene Schneiderman, mezzo (The Electress)
Vera-Lotte Boecker, soprano (Princess Natalie)
Robin Adams, baritone (The Prince of Homburg)
Moritz Kallenberg, tenor (Count Hohenzollern)
Michael Ebbecke, baritone (Field Marshall Dörfling)
Friedemann Röhlig, bass (Colonel Kottwitz)
Johannes Kammler, baritone (Sergeant)
Stage director Stephan Kimmig, Sets Katja Hass, Costumes Anja Rabes
Orchestra of Staatsoper Stuttgart/Cornelius Meister
Rec. 20th & 22nd March 2019 at Staatsoper Stuttgart, Germany. Video director Andy Sommer.
HD 16:9, PCM stereo, Regions A, B, C. Subtitles: German, English, Japanese, Korean.
NAXOS NBD0115V Blu-ray [113 mins]

Henze’s opera was first given in Hamburg in 1960, and has a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann after one of Germany’s great plays, Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (1810). The Nazis corrupted the play into a celebration of militarism, so it took a while to return to German stages, and there have since been a few modern productions in Britain. It even makes it into Michael Billington’s book “101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present” (2015). The opera, faithful for the most part to Kleist, was seen in London at the English National Opera in 1996, and has been revived in Europe a few times of late, of which this filmed Stuttgart Opera production is the most recent. Henze and Bachmann rejected the hated German militarism which they both experienced directly when very young, and which they feared would return to their country. These recent revivals have perhaps been provoked by a resurgence of right-wing continental politics therefore, but there is rather more to this piece than that, not least several oppositions; between dream and reality, between discipline and spontaneity of action, and even – in case you thought it had nothing to do with operatic tradition – between love and death.

The Prince of Homburg, the Elector of Brandenburg’s cavalry leader, is missing on the eve of battle, but found dreaming in a garden. His eminent nocturnal visitors include his beloved Princess Natalie, whose glove he obtains. Then Elector and entourage depart Homburg’s dream. The battle plan requires the cavalry to await their order to engage, but Homburg is inattentive, dreaming of Natalie. His premature attack ensures the Elector’s victory but he is sentenced to death for disobedience. He won’t believe that sentence will be carried out until told the orders have been signed. Initially Homburg despairs. Natalie pleads with the Elector, who decides if Homburg can claim the sentence is unjust he will pardon him. Homburg refuses and insists that he wants to die. He is led out to execution in the nocturnal garden of his opening dream, but when his blindfold is removed, he is freed and all celebrate his victory. “Am I dreaming?” he asks. “What else?” comes the answer.

The score is varied and impressive. Henze has described how he contrasts "the beautiful old harmonies of yesterday" used to represent the Prince's dream-world with "serially organized military music, with a predominance of fanfare-like fourths and fifths in the twelve-note row" used for the waking world. And in his Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography Henze writes “Every bar reveals Verdi’s influence as a musical dramatist” and mentions especially the first act finale, when Homburg switches from triumph to bewildered disgrace in a few bars and a big concertato passage ensues, dramatically worthy of the great Italian.

Stephan Kimmig’s production is less persuasive than the work itself. The uniform set is an empty white-tiled space, suggesting nothing of an Electoral court, a nocturnal garden, a prison cell or a battlefield. The ‘cell’ of scene 8 is a sort of mirrored room (which enables us to see the reflected conductor at the same time as the singers he is conducting). The idea perhaps is to avoid any real setting to evoke a surreal one. In the battle scene some characters smear themselves in blood from buckets. Costumes are vaguely modern, with a nod to uniform in some red tracksuits, and, inexplicably, trousers are not always required. Kimmig’s direction of his characters is also difficult to fathom at times, with gestures sometimes seeming unrelated to relationships. The main point of all this, one imagines, is that there is no attempt to normalise an elusive opera. There is a certain problematic strangeness in both play and opera, so why not reflect that rather than explain it away?

The cast serves the work well. Robin Adams as Homburg carries the day, highly committed to his demanding role, rising to every vocal and histrionic challenge. Vera-Lotte Boecker, as Natalie sings a musically wide-ranging part very well and acts convincingly, especially in her scene with Helene Schneidermann’s fine Electress. Štefan Margita’s Elector and Moritz Kallenberg’s Hohenzollern both have impressive tenors suited to the different ages of the characters they play. The support roles are well taken in an even cast. The Staatsoper Orchestra (reduced in size in this 1991 revision, but still colourful) have the most impressive music, especially in their several interludes, and play it very well. Conductor Cornelius Meister has the measure of the piece, and maintains a good balance between singers and pit (there is no chorus to look after in this opera).

There are no extras on the disc, but good notes are included in the booklet, including one from the director, along with a synopsis and track listing. The stereo sound is fine, but unusually the Blu-ray has no multi-channel surround option. The only rival filmed production is that by Nikolaus Lehnhoff first seen in Munich in 1992 (and was the one brought to London by ENO in 1996). A DVD of this production was recorded in Munich in 1994 by the Bavarian State Opera with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting, but might now be difficult to obtain. However that production was seen in 1992 by Henze himself who wrote of it “What a pity that Inge was no longer there to see it. Our piece sounded just as we had imagined it would sound.”

So the Stuttgart version has the battlefield to itself, and this largely effective musical realisation could yet be a staging post in what one hopes will be a continuing interest by leading opera houses in the works of Hans Werner Henze.

Roy Westbrook



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