Hans Werner Henze, libretto by W.H.Auden and Chester Kallman, directed by Fiona Shaw
Ice. It’s a tricky metaphor to use these days. Think of a glacier cracking, a polar bear on the prowl, or human steps making ripples in meltwater, and it’s hard to escape the moral parable of global warming.
But somehow Fiona Shaw does escape it in this ENO/Young Vic production. This stage is a slab of ice that cracks more and more, so by the final act the light shines up between the jagged planes and the furniture hangs at precarious angles. But the polar bear that prowls here is no pure, white victim of profligate humanity, but a ruthless predator, poet Gregor Mittenhoffer, wrapped up against the Alpine cold and unwelcome human contact.
There’s a sparseness about this work that suits the intimate space of the Young Vic, where the audience is close enough to see the tears welling in the singers’ eyes, and to hear the words with no need for surtitles. Instead of a chorus, a handful of servants neither sing nor speak, but their looks and movements are an emotional underscoring to complement the music.
Not that it lacks ambitious visual effects. The characters’ thoughts and visions are projected onto open books, or tables, or the slab of ice that loom over the space like the Hammerhorn mountain. The ripples follow their feet across the stage.
The sparseness of the libretto, too, gives the music a sense of purpose and clarity. There’s no singing for the sake of singing, here. Like a well-written play, every line tells, works for that character at that moment. Old Frau Mack has folkish strings to accompany her, but virtuoso melodic lines for her mystical flights of vision and, later, emotion. The young man, Toni, repeats in near monotone his ‘it’s all right … I don’t mind’, as he tries to deflect his father’s conversation, but grows lyrical alone with his lover. What could otherwise be intimidatingly eclectic and avant-garde sixties music makes complete sense as the emotional landscape of the action.
The main theme of the piece is the tension between the drive to be a decent human being and the drive to create great Art. Gregor is a monster – manipulative, arrogant and selfish, indulged by those around him as much for his charisma (which, as performed by baritone Steven Page, is considerable) as for his reported talent. He lurches from seductive charm to violent rage.
He treats all life – his own, and all those around him – as mere raw material for his work. ‘One no longer knows what is true or false, or right or wrong,’ he sings to his young mistress, ‘only what goes, or not goes, into song’. The ‘Elegy for Young Lovers’ of the title is a poem he is writing, wanting to finish in time for a reading on his sixtieth birthday. Real life tragedy is, for him, just an extra layer of poignancy for a work that will bring him adulation.
But there’s another theme, the glacial passage of time, the span of human lives.
Frau Mack has waited forty years for news of her young husband, who vanished. When the alpine guide reports that a young man’s body has been found at the foot of the glacier, ruddy cheeked as if still alive, frozen all that time and only now brought to light, she suddenly realises that her own life has passed by. ‘How late it is. I am grown old’. Her visions, which Gregor has milked for his poetry, stop coming. Instead she gets a smart new outfit and goes shopping. ‘Put that in a sonnet, ducky. It beats that rot that you used to steal from me once,’ she sings, cheerful and drunk.
Melting ice, cracking glaciers, are dangerous, disruptive, but also liberating. The poet is abandoned by those around him, except his loyal assistant Carolina, as the old order fragments. And the final tragedy of the young lovers is not the thaw, but an unpredictable blizzard, fatally compounded by Gregor’s chilling decision to leave them to their fate for his own, artistic, purposes.
Elisabeth and Toni find themselves on the unforgiving mountain, far from human help and slowly freezing to death. Their story, only just beginning, is about to be over.
Together, they imagine themselves an old couple who were married for forty years, reminiscing about the lives they shared. But Elisabeth keeps breaking the fairy-tale with notes of tragedy. They had four children – but one died in childhood, and another is ‘always in trouble and in need of our help’. The tragic scene slips in and out of comedy.
And then we are left with only the poet, served by Carolina with his birthday cake before he takes to the stage with his ‘Elegy’, and the flecks of light, like snow, whirl across the stage and over the audience.
This is a breathtaking production, with not a false note from the cast either in acting or musically. All the elements work together to make an experience that is not ‘relevant’ but many-layered, emotionally true, visually captivating, musically seductive. If you have ever doubted that opera can really succeed as theatre, this production should convince you.
Till 8 May 2010