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Elegy for Young Lovers
Curtis Opera Theatre
On March 14 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, Curtis Opera Theatre presented Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers. This peculiar but rewarding opera — a collaboration with librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman — was created at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1961 by a Munich-based cast led by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Juilliard staged the U.S. premiere in 1965; but so far, NYCO's 1973 production of The Young Lord remains the only Henze opera either of New York's two major companies has ever mounted.
Auden and Kallman fashioned Henze a cynical, high-culture version of The Man Who Came to Dinner in three acts, with echoes of Dickens's Miss Havisham, Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken and Humperdinck's Königskinder. It concerns a spoiled sixty-something Austrian poet (Gregor Mittenhofer) who preys on his entourage for inspiration and financial support. Every year he visits an inn to experience the visions of one Hilda Mack, widowed decades earlier when her husband froze on a high mountain glacier. In the summer the opera depicts, circa 1910, the "fresh, young" body of Herr Mack is found even as her high-coloratura flights predict a related fate for a young couple — Elisabeth, the poet's secretary and erstwhile mistress, and Toni Reischmann, his devoted doctor's son — whose death Mittenhofer engineers to give him a sentimental subject for the acclaim-winning poem named in the opera's title.
Curtis's production marked the opera's local premiere. George Manahan proved a sound choice for guest conductor, though his percussion-heavy forces occasionally drowned the singers in ensemble. The score also deploys two guitars for some conversational passages; and many lines have at least some parlando component. All the singers showed virtues in very tough assignments.
Director Chas Rader-Shieber updated the piece from 1910 to circa 1966, with Elisabeth dressed in Carnaby Street mode and coiffed and made up like Twiggy. Thus the poet's deprecation of his coevals George, Rilke and Hofmannsthal, Hilda Mack's ignorance of The Merry Widow and Dr. Reischmann's fears about Elisabeth's reputation became anachronistic — all, seemingly, for the sake of displaying some Danish Modern furniture and playing at a Mad Men aesthetic. The august doctor, in form-hugging saffron turtleneck, plaid trousers and brown shoes, looked more like his son's slickly Mod roommate; and Rader-Shieber egged Andrew Bogard on to sit-com stylization in movement and expression.
Julian Arsenault (Mittenhofer) had difficulty maintaining a consistent accent; the difficult part's high, Fischer-Dieskau-ish tessitura and declamation plainly taxed his resources, as it would for most baritones. The (sometimes cut) scene of the freezing young lovers imagining their thwarted future married life — leading to a kind of acceptance of death — drew forth Rader-Shieber's best inspiration, unleashing a blizzard made from Mittenhofer's manuscript pages, discarded in a previous jealous rage. Joshua Stewart was fearless as to range and stayed on pitch, but his now beefed-up tenor did not produce much actualtone in this lyric part. Sarah Shafer gave a remarkable, artistically mature performance as Elisabeth, her lovely soprano pure, accurate and highly expressive. This is a singer to watch.
Jazimina MacNeil started well as Carolina, a Geschwitz-like contralto Gräfin whose money and adoration help prop Mittenhofer up, to her eventual emotional ruin — but despite a good voice and convincing simulation of middle age, her performance suffered from a lack of pointed phrasing in both singing and speech. Young Anna Davidson overcame her first, inappropriately tarty costume to sing Hilda with spirit and remarkable facility, only tiring from the relentlessly high tessitura in Act III. Some of the best acting came from bass-baritone Thomas Shivone, whose expressionistic but not overdone Mauer had nothing to sing but declaimed his parlando lines with unsettling effect. Curtis offered Philadelphia a fascinating evening; Henze's opera deserves more frequent productions.