Repertoire Search

Hans Werner Henze

Publisher: Chester Music

Phaedra (2007)
Co-commissioned and co-produced by Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Berliner Festspiele, Théâtre de la Monnaie Brussels, Alte Oper Frankfurt and Wiener Festwochen.
Text Writer
Christian Lehnert
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 20 Minutes
Mezzo soprano,Soprano, Tenor, Counter Tenor, Baritone
Buy this work
Worldwide Sales   North American Sales

Programme Note
Hans Werner Henze Phaedra (2007)

1. Morning
I. The Labyrinth
Echoes sound through the ruins of the labyrinth, in the depths of which Theseus conquered the Minotaur, and become voices in a new story: Phaedra and Hippolytus.

II. At the Edge of the Wood
Hippolytus has set off for the hunt. Phaedra wanders through the first light of dawn. She is driven by desire and shame, by love for her stepson Hippolytus and self-loathing. She seeks her death. As she tries to slit her wrists with a shard of glass but the goddess Aphrodite holds her back. Aphrodite, in love herself with Hippolytus, is offended by his exclusive worship of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, and wants to take revenge.

III. Thicket
In her idle wanderings over boulders and through thickets, Phaedra, accompanied by Aphrodite, happens upon the sleeping Hippolytus. She kneels down before him and sings of her love. Hippolytus awakens. Phaedra confesses her feelings frankly to him. Artemis steps out of the wood to warn Hippolytus. Hippolytus outraged by his stepmother, brutally pushes her away. Phaedra’s feelings change suddenly to hate. Aphrodite and Phaedra unite in their rage. Hippolytus, however, only hears the call of Artemis and turns away unmoved. Phaedra grabs hold of Hippolytus’ knfe and makes another attempt to slit her wrists. Aphrodite holds her back once again.

IV. The Snare
Phaedra lies upon her bed in the palace and writes Theseus a letter slandering her stepson. She claims that Hippolytus raped her. The unsuspecting Hippolytus returns from the hunt.

V. The Death of Hippolytus
Artemis enters the palace. She narrates: Theseus believed Phaedra’s letter. He determined to kill his son and asked Poseidon for help. As Hippolytus drove along the coast in his chariot, Poseidon allowed the resurrected Minotaur to rise out of the sea. The horses shied and dragged Hippolytus over the rocks. While Artemis sings, the mortally wounded Hippolytus staggers toward her and collapses. The slam of a trapdoor is heard. Phaedra hangs from a rope. The Minotaur dances in the background.

2. Evening
I. Do you remember who you were?
Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, has brought Hippolytus to her grove in Nemi in Italy. With an assistant, she works on Hippolytus’ body to bring him back to life. Once they succeed, she locks him up in a cage and gives him a new name: Virbius. Phaedra rises from the Underworld as a bird-being and mocks Hippolytus as the work and pet of the goddess.

II. When do the dead approach you, Hippolytus?
A storm approaches the grove in Nemi. Aphrodite appears in a ring of light and demands the right of the Gods: Hippolytus belongs in the Underworld. Phaedra and Aphrodite circle Hippolytus’ cage in order to seize him. They sing of death, and both lure Hippolytus like an animal. Artemis catches Hippolytus in a net and hides him in a safe cave.

III. In the Mirror
Distraught, Hippolytus crouches before a spring in the cave. He examines his reflection in the water. He does not know who he is. He dreams of a faraway garden. Phaedra strolls toward him like a barmaid to lure him into the Underworld. Hippolytus, frightened and confused, pushes Phaedra away and struggles out of the cave. An earthquake shakes the cave.

IV. King of the Forest
Hippolytus has risen as King of the Forest. He wanders through the grove in Nemi. What has happened and will happen, becomes blurred in a dance.

© Christian Lehnert

Act 1 score preview:

Act 2 score preview

Vocal score preview

Henze's music - eclectic, and often beautiful when not at full tilt - worked its spell.
David Shengold, Opera,01/09/2011
This strange and compelling piece was first performed in Berlin in 2007, and on Friday night it received its U.S. premiere in a worthy production by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Borrowing from Euripides, Henze and Lehnert turn stepmother and stepson into pawns in a battle between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite, enraged that Hippolytus shuns physical love in favor of chaste athleticism, inspires the lustful passion in Phaedra that will ruin him. Artemis, meanwhile, does her best to protect Hippolytus, and after his death she brings him back to life and tries to keep him as a kind of pet. The opera is compact — running less than 90 minutes — but musically it's extremely dense and rhythmically full of surprises. Henze achieves some dazzling effects with a chamber orchestra of two dozen players, heavy on percussion and brass — including the rare use of a Wagner tuba. Recorded sound effects introduce such noises as a thunderstorm and the ringing of a telephone. Though the music is astringently atonal, there are passages of striking lyricism, particularly the writing for Phaedra and Aphrodite. There's tremendous dramatic tension in the scene in which Phaedra literally throws herself at Hippolytus. And there's welcome comic relief at the opening of Act 2, when Artemis "operates" on the corpse of Hippolytus with such objects as a circular saw and a funnel. If Henze's inspiration perhaps flags a bit in some of the later scenes, he redeems the ending with an ecstatic hymn in which all the soloists take part.
Mike Silverman, The Associated Press,05/06/2011
Just two acts, some 75 minutes, an exquisite retelling by Christian Lehnert of the Phaedra myth, and a score in which a string quartet meets the voices of wind soloists and percussion: this late work is one of Henze’s most fresh, most moving and perfectly conceived works.
Hilary Finch, The Times,20/01/2010
Henze's score, with its febrile vocal lines and translucent ensemble writing, which are illuminated intermittently by shafts of pungent lyricism, is often remarkable.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,20/01/2010
Hans Werner Henze has a good claim to be the third great opera composer of recent times, alongside Strauss and Britten. Phaedra is darker and harsher, with precious little of the balletic spirit that animates his other stage works. It's a dark tale, of course, and becomes even more so in German poet Christian Lehnert's elaboration of the original myth. By the end of the first act, Phaedra's guilty passion for Hippolytus has been rejected, and her revenge (egged on by Aphrodite) has caused Hippolytus's death under his chariot wheels. In the second act, Lehnert imagines Hippolytus restored to life by Artemis, to become once again a pursued and harried object, the victim of jealous scheming between Phaedra and Aphrodite on the one hand and Artemis on the other. As for Henze's music, much of it is in the shadow of Stravinsky's Greek neoclassical style (harp and cor anglais in pastoral duets), but there's an expressionist streak too, not far from Berg.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegragh,19/01/2010
An 80-minute dramatic fantasy, magically scored for chamber ensemble, about love, mortality and the unstoppable dance of life, it has wonderful moments, including an earthquake interlude.
Andrew Clark, The Financial Times,19/01/2010
Two years ago Harrison Birtwistle completed his latest full-length opera, The Minotaur, around the same time that his German contemporary Hans Werner Henze was incorporating the half-man, half-beast into his version of the Phaedra legend. It’s not the first time he’s looked to the classical world for inspiration but here, with an elliptical, poetic text by Christian Lehnert, he takes the story in directions Racine would never have dreamed of. The first act is an elegiac re-telling of the tale – Phaedra falls for her son-in-law Hippolyt and when rejected by him accuses him of rape and brings about his death - but the second, altogether more abrasive and theatrically-thrilling, flicks into grotesquerie, with Artemis reviving the dead Hippolyt in a Frankenstein-like resurrection. In a year that will see more Henze presented in London, this was a fine way to celebrate a contemporary great, who earned that rare thing: a deserved standing ovation.
Simon Thomas,,18/01/2010
n 2005, having completed the first act of his opera Phaedra and killed off his lead Hippolyte, Hans Werner Henze contracted a mystery illness. No one understood it or saw a way out of it. He stopped eating, then speaking. His eyes began to fail him. He fell into a coma. The musical world began to fly out to his Italian village outside Rome to pay their last respects and prepare for his funeral. Then, two inert months into the grief and the start of the obsequies, Henze "just stood up", and went back to work on the second act of Phaedra, in which Hippolyte returns from the dead. 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.
Igor Toronyi-Lalic,,18/01/2010
'It's a challenge to do justice to this music.'
Melanie Eskenazi, MusicOMH,01/01/2010
After a successful European tour following its September 2007 premiere in Berlin, Henze's Phaedra reached the composer's adopted home country to be staged under his personal supervision at the MAGGIO MUSICALE...Henze's 50-year love-affair with the Roman campagna seems to be reflected in the particular way the myth is treated in Christian Lehnert's libretto, which sets Act 2 on the lake of Nemi- the Romans' speculum Dianae, close to Henze's Marino residence. The cosy TEATRO GOLDONI proved an ideal venue for this 'Konzertopera' with its chamber-like dimension. The overall impression was of a sophisticated essay on theatre music applied to a well-known subject, a retrospective of forms and stylistic devices from the German and Italian traditions cleverly blended into Henze's personal style. Roberto Abbado drew lively, transparent playing from the Maggio soloists in perfect balance with the five young singers...The German director Michael Kersstan, formerly Henze's assistant, and the designer Nana Cecchi devised a highly stylized stage action...
Matteo Sansone, Opera,01/11/2008
“Phaedra” turned out to be a manifold surprise – and almost a joyful victory for the 81-year-old. Nimble-fingered as a magician who reaches deep into his bag of tricks once more, Henze composed a puzzle of musical influences that are skillfully and competently mixed together. In a phase where health and life have almost broken him, Henze shows amazing transcendence and charm. With “Phaedra” he has produced a late classic.
Kai Luehrs-Kaiser, Muncher Merkur,10/09/2007
But the foremost point of interest for spectators and listeners is that Henze, whose speech has been nearly silenced, wrote a music whose eloquence lies in its very economy. If Henze’s previous scores were brimming with melodious ardor, multi-layered polyphony and illustrative details, ”Phaedra” surprises with hardened sounds, diaphonous, often two-part instrument leads and concentrated symbolism. This music sounds liberated, liberated from overly traditional conceptions of beauty and histrionics. If the opulence of earlier works often turned into vagueness in form and expression, “Phaedra” seems to be wrought in an extraordinarily precise manner. If the beginning of the prologue should remind one of Theseus’ fight with the minotaur, a few close steps of the low brass suffice Henze for characterizing the monster and the darkness of the labyrinth. The music needs no further painting in, it breaks off before it loses itself. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t lose itself. Shortly before the end, in the duet mentioned, it diffuses beautifully to end with a rapid dance full of tonal will-o’-the-wisps. With “Phaedra”, opera stages are one well manageable, multifaceted discovery seeking piece richer.
Peter Uehling, Berliner Zeitung,10/09/2007
The world of images in “Phaedra” has fascinating moments. So does the music. Especially in the orchestration, in the mixture of sounds that surprises over and over, Henze displays great mastery once again, and he consistently plays so subtly with background pieces of music history that a really blissful composure of old age must be attested to. Much beauty lies in the music and in the very poetic text.
Susanne Benda, Stuttgarter Nachrichten,10/09/2007
It had an air of pontifical benevolence, the way 81-year-old Hans Werner Henze with his angular bald crown bathed in a bright spot light, entered the middle loge of the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden. An audience filled with renowned German composers stood to pay their homage to – next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, the doyen of local composers. What then followed had nothing to do with important state ceremonial, it was simply the art of great contemporary opera. And although he had declared his self-written Persian fairy tale about the hoopoe, premièred in Salzburg in 2003, to be his last opera, he has now risen again with a further dramatic work, coproduced with partners in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Vienna. And in what a manner! Whereas “L’Upupa” was styled in the fashion of the old masters, pulling softly once more on every instrumentation register, the austere concert opera “Phaedra” shows a strengthened, pugnaciously flashing Henze. Not a resigned, aged composer, but someone who definitely still has something to say and who says it.
Manuel Brug, Die Welt,10/09/2007
The 45 minutes of the first act sweep by with unbroken, nearly overwhelming power. The Frankfurter “Ensemble modern” indulges in fiery instrumental attacks of unbroken expressiveness. The tragedy of love and the lamentations, revenge, and hate that accompany it, virtually tear into each other musically.
Klaus Geitel, Berliner Morgenpost,10/09/2007
Henze’s music is as brilliantly composed as ever and seems as allusive and suggestive as it is colorful and full of direct dramatic power. Written for an ensemble with multiple wind instruments, extensive percussion, piano, celesta, harp and string quartet, it is full of enchanting effects, belcanto glance, instrumental refinement, and it juggles all conceivable gradations of treating voices, from pure speech to coloratura, with virtuosity.
Julia Spinola, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,09/09/2007
Close X

Newsletter Signup

Enter your email address to keep up to date with the latest news and special offers from Wise Music Classical.
Your data is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time. Read our Privacy Policy

Click here to receive regular news
© Copyright 2020 Wise Music Classical. Part of Wise Music Group.