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Hans Werner Henze

Publisher: Chester Music

Opfergang (Immolazione) (2009)
Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Text Writer
Franz Werfel
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
45 Minutes
Tenor, Bass, Baritone, quartet of men's voices (TTBB)
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Programme Note
Hans Werner Henze Opfergang (Immolazione) (2009)
At the edge of a city, at midnight, a stray dog from what was evidently a
good home encounters a distraught man on the run. It emerges from the
latter’s monologues that he has survived a difficult and humiliating period
that is none the less shrouded in obscurity. He suffers unspeakably, and
everything he says tells of bitterness, loneliness and distress. But we never
discover the actual reasons for his pain, only that those reasons still exist.
Pursued by a posse of policemen, the stranger kills the little dog in
his distress and panic. A murderer, he now sinks appreciably from one
qualitative level to another. On the one hand, the music ascends (for the
ascension of our little dog), while on the other it descends into the
unfathomable depths of the stranger’s soul.

Franz Werfel makes it possible for his reader (and also for me, the
composer) to read his poem on various levels. I have wanted to set his
‘dramatic poem’ The Sacrifice to music since the early fifties. This dream
has now come true thanks to a commission from the Orchestra
dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

© Hans Werner Henze

Henze is the world’s most successful and productive composer of operas, with a tally of 12 works established on the fringes, at least, of the international repertoire. Four years ago, the composer suffered an illness that many thought would be his last, but he recovered and has continued to write music on a grand scale. His most recent opera, Phaedra, completed after his recovery and premiered at the Berlin State Opera in 2007, has its first UK performance at the Barbican Hall tonight. English National Opera will unveil a new production (by Fiona Shaw) of his first English opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, at the Young Vic this spring. Belatedly, Henze is ­getting the attention here that his music merits. Opfergang, a mini “concert opera” or “scenic concerto” for two solo voices, vocal quartet, solo piano and large orchestra, including a characteristically exotic array of percussion: chocalho, crotales, bongos and Chinese cymbals. Henze wrote the work, in 2008-09, as the fulfilment of a 50-year ambition to set Franz Werfel’s poem Das Opfer. It was also written for the Royal Opera’s Antonio ­Pappano, in his other guise as musical director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. John Tomlinson and Ian Bostridge were the singers of the principal characters of Werfel’s poem, so, with luck, we won’t have to wait too long before Opfergang is performed over here (UK).
Hugh Canning, Sunday Times,17/01/2010
Opfergang ( Immolazione / The Sacrifice ), given its world premiere in Rome on Sunday, follows 2007's Phaedra . At 83, Henze is still composing. The 2003 health scare proved a false alarm. Thank goodness. Far from giving up, Henze has entered a new compositional phase, penning works that are more pared down yet more immediate than ever. There is both raw passion and refinement in Immolazione. … This 50-minute setting of Franz Werfel's turgid 1919 poem is not technically an opera. Henze has set Werfel's darkly expressionist tale of a little white dog and a violent man for tenor and bass, male quartet, piano and orchestra in a manner that is part oratorio, part cantata, but seems just as dramatic (and as claustrophobic) as Schoenberg's Erwartung . It will surely find its way to a full staging in the near future. … Henze's handiwork is breathtaking. He weaves orchestral colours that range from savage outbursts of rage to gossamer beams of light, all structured with consummate craft. This is a strange narrative of crime and transfiguration, the dog a canine Isolde, offering itself in a Liebestod to redeem the Stranger's troubled soul, the quartet a sober Greek chorus commenting on the action. A Wagner tuba, a heckelphone, a battery of percussion and a handgun are among the special effects in Henze's armoury. But he is ultimately a storyteller of the old-fashioned type, drawing his colours from centuries of music history, and he still has plenty to say.
Shirley Apthorp, Financial Times,15/01/2010
Once or twice a year, there is a new work from Hans Werner Henze, and each time it is supposed to be his last. Tremendous pieces have been among these, full-length operas, cantatas for full orchestra. At the same time, each composition is developed differently from the previous one, none of them a gimcrack, together at best. The autographs are harder to read than they once were; Henze’s handwriting has become shaky. His music, in contrast, speaks with power, concentration and structural clarity, in this most recent piece “Immolazione”, as well. ... This dark story comes forth with formidable ease, floating past as if on fairytale feet despite an opulent Mahler-like orchestra: a comfort and a promise. The musical movement is complex, but signs of Henze’s late mastery remain, always transparent, the text literally understandable.
Eleonore Büning, Frankfurter Allgemiene Zeitung,13/01/2010
The small sections in the grand design, the contrasting and further spinning characterize the structure of this great concert cantata, the title of which – in German “Opfergang” (“Sacrifice”) – is ambiguous and could also be interpreted as referring to the strain of composing itself. In a short breathing rhythm, the music activates the adrenaline of percussion and brass again and again, lets bubbles of aggression burst like boiling lava to sink immediately back into zones of relaxation in which the high strings and pastel-coloured woodwind lines assert an idyllic state of hovering. It is as if Henze had actually sewn piece to piece here, taking the energy from one eruption of arioso to create the next. ... The piece has a gnarled character in this ascetism of sound and is, at the same time, a great piece of opera, a Gran Scena, that holds a sovereign balance between the diverging and merging efforts of the two soloists until it reaches the moment of fulfillment in a few beats of joint a cappella that hover near the end.
Jörg Königsdorf, Der Tagesspiegel,13/01/2010
The composer Hans Werner Henze has been waiting for an opportunity to set Franz Werfel's 1913 poem Opfergang (The Sacrifice) since 1953 when he first broke with his native Germany and moved permanently to Italy. Finally, a commission from the Orchestra della Accademia di Santa Cecilia enabled him to realize this ambition. Last weekend, at the orchestra’s new home in Rome, the Auditorium at the Parco della Musica, the premiere was a powerful and moving experience. Now 83, Henze is pouring out masterworks like the elderly Verdi, and Der Opfergang, lucid and compelling, is one of his finest works (leading one to expect great things from his next opera, Gisela, to be premiered in September at the RuhrTriennale festival).
Richard Jones, Washington Post,12/01/2010
Much awaited in the international music world, Hans Werner Henze's Opfergang had its debut on January 10th at the main 2832-seat Santa Cecilia auditorium of the Parco della Musica in Roma. Maestro Henze is the most frequently performed living contemporary musician. He has lived in Italy since the early 1950's. Yet, Opfergang is the first musical composition commissioned by an Italian institution. Like many other works of his, the composition maintains Maestro Henze's very strong flair for dramatic action. Musically, the framework is dodecaphonic. Once more Maestro Henze brings the 12-tone scale to a large audience, as he did nearly 55 years ago with his first operatic masterpiece Boulevard Solitude. The audience erupted in real accolades at the end of the performance, even if the 2832-auditorium was perhaps too vast for such an intimate Konzertopera.
Giuseppe Pennisi, La Scena Musicale,11/01/2010
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