Hans Werner Henze calls the opera that he says will be his last, L’Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2003, ‘a German comedy after the Arabian’. The libretto, which he wrote himself, is like an abstraction of all fairy tales, a digest of the 1001 Nights. The story involves ‘a flying Demon, three Sons, three venerable Rulers, three fabulous treasures (the Upupa with golden feathers, a Jewish princess, and a musical Box of Miracles) and the happy return of a prodigal son’. At the centre is an old man, Al Radshi, Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of the Black Baboons, who is depressed because he has lost his upupa or hoopoe, the golden bird that brings luck and was his great joy. His sons are sent out on different paths – of self-discovery, of course - to recover it, and ... much happens ... but happy endings are the order of the day ...
It is a fascinating opera, cast in eleven tableaux and full of set-pieces (aria, duet, quartet, cabaletta, and there is dialogue too), a far cry in its sharp-witted, burlesque sensibility from that archetypal ‘German comedy’, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, mischievously alluded to in the subtitle. Henze is closer in spirit to the Stravinsky of those enchanting avian masterpieces, the ballet The Firebird and the opera The Nightingale. For Radio France (and the Orchestre National de France) in 2004 he devised the 18-minute operatic paraphrase that receives its British premiere tonight. The title is somewhat deceptive. The Queen of Sheba is not a character in the opera, but, according to Arabian mythology, it was a talking hoopoe that revealed her existence to King Solomon, who then communicated with her by attaching messages to the bird’s wing.
The ‘messages’ in the concert work bring news to us of this late and colourful flowering of Henze’s prodigious operatic career. They are scored for a richly percussive, often exotic-sounding orchestra that includes three saxophones. Each short movement is linked to a tableau, though this is not indicated in the score. The first presents material from Tableau 5, ‘Conflict’, in which Al Kasim, the Grand Vizier’s youngest son – the work’s hero - argues with his personal Demon on a country road. They have the missing hoopoe in a cage and the Demon is happy to return with it to the Grand Vizier, but, no, Al Kasim must go and rescue a captive Jewish girl, Badi’at. The music is hectic and strident with an assertive trombone part.
The second message derives from Tableau 2, ‘The Sons’, in which those individuals are seen setting out on their respective paths, or rather – in the case of the good-for-nothing Adshib and untrustworthy Gharib - not setting out, but preferring to play cards. This movement is a brash scherzo dominated by the sly, sinuous sound of a pair of saxophones. In the next movement, excerpted from Tableau 9, ‘A Reunion’, and beginning with a slow, intense string passage, the two wicked brothers, still at cards, affect a happy reunion with Al Kasim but trap him down a well (Badi’at leaps in to join him). Trumpet flourishes herald the return of saxophone sonority.
The fourth message comes from Tableau 10, ‘The Magic Chest’, in which the wicked brothers bring back the golden hoopoe to Al Radshi but devastate him by saying Al Kasim is dead. Drummers, pipers and trumpeters emerge from the chest, and in the sonic rout the brothers are beaten, trampled on and nearly killed. In the nick of time Al Kasim, alive and well, appears with Badi’at, and they are able to stop the music.The brothers are condemned to spending the rest of their lives working in the municipal sewers of ‘some provincial backwater’. This movement is in the favoured Henze form of a fandango, one that is coruscating (note the early section for harp, piano, tuned percussion and three bright piccolos) and ever more strenuous.
It leads to the strange tremolo for gongs, tubular bells and tom-toms that opens the fifth message, a brief but touching Adagio based on Tableau 11, ‘The Twilight Hour’. This is purely orchestral in the opera, and depicts the old Vizier and Badi’at, with a golden hoopoe feather in her hand, ‘sitting quietly high on their tower’ and watching as Al Kasim rides off on his camel (he has just one more task to perform before he marries her), growing smaller and smaller until he vanishes in the evening light.
© Paul Driver