If L'Upupa had offered itself simply as a millenial Magic Flute, that might justly have been construed as delusions of grandeur. But the opera's final stages offer a more personal and equivocal interpretation of the archetypal myth of good triumphing over evil - represented here primarily by al Kasim's pair of feckless brothers. Instead of moving to a double epiphany in which the father releases the magical hoopoe as the good son marries the beautiful princess he has rescued, Henze links the cathartic release of the bird with the son's determination to fulfil a different obligation.
During al Kasim's quest for the hoopoe, his main companion and helper has been a gently comic 'demon' who is more a fallen guardian angel than a Lucifer or Mephistopheles. One senses that the composer's affection was increasingly centred on this character, portrayed by John Mark Ainsley with a restraint which makes the element of pathos the more effective: and this affection is shared by al Kasim. As the opera ends, the hero rushes away to take a red apple, symbol of the richness and inexhaustibility of nature, to his friend, while his father and fiancée move to the back of the stage, watching for a return which only takes place, if it does take place, after the opera has ended.
During the last 10 minutes, the music is purely orchestral, its poetic blend of eloquence and regret as touching in its distinctive way as the valedictory epilogue for Capriccio by Henze's great 20th-century operatic precursor, Richard Strauss.
This recording from the Salzburg premiere is, in most respects, a delight for both eye and ear. It's no great weakness that the young lovers, well sung and acted by Matthias Goerne and Laura Aikin, seem relatively one-dimensional alongside Ainsley's helpful, bewildered demon, and the stage production fits the work's knowingly light-hearted tone without overdoing the comic exoticism. Technically, Brian Large is well-practised in the art of avoiding excessive nudging of the viewer with obtrusively prolonged close-ups, and Markus Stenz is the ideal conductor to make sure that the essential threads of Henze's richly diffuse but never shapeless musical weave are clearly brought out.
DVD of the MonthArnold Whitall, The Gramophone, 3/1/2005
The music has all the hallmarks of Henze's operatic style - lyrical lines and rich harmonies - but they're all pared down at the beginning, so those lines aren't long, and those harmonies fleeting. The performance, from the premiere run in Salzburg, is led with confidence by Markus Stenz, and the production, with primary colours to the fore, has an uncluttered simplicity, matched by Brian Large's unfussy TV direction. You'll need to watch this several times to catch all the dramatic and musical allusions, but it's worth it.Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine, 3/1/2005
L’Upupa by Henze proves one thing: it is an incontestable masterwork that confirms the composer as one of the greatest operatic composers in the history of music…What other living composer can write for the voice like Henze?, El Ritmo, 1/1/2005
Rarely if ever can a new opera have had so spectacularly brilliant a world premiere as Henze's latest and, he promises, last opera, L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohneslieve. He completed it at Easter 2003 and it was presented at that summer's Salzburg Festival, the DVD now available being a composite of its performances there. Presented at the Kleines Festspielhaus, it was greeted with unusual enthusiasm for a new opera, but it is a highly accessible work. Henze wrote his own libretto, acutely aware of the demands of the stage and of what kind of text will work...
It's an oriental story, but the Orient involved is very much that of eighteenth-century imagining, and indeed very close in many respects to that of Mozart's Die Entführung. Henze was apparently full of Mozartian thoughts as he composed the work, and several of the characters are clearly more closely related to their prototypes in Die Zauberflöte ... orchestral colour takes priority over all other elements; and the centre of attention, as the title indicates, is a gorgeously plumed bird, so that The Golden Cockerel can hardly not spring to mind.
At the start we see a great arch and, sitting at its apex, an old man who has a long monologue in which he confesses to stealing the golden feather of the hoopoe, which he sends his sons to retrieve. Two of the sons are wicked, but they are too inept to do any serious harm, while the third is angelic, so naturally meets a wonderful girl, undergoes a gruelling ordeal down a well with her, and everything ends happily, with the wicked sons being sent off in opposite directions to become sewerage managers. Though the story is fantastic and often comic, sometimes even funny, there are solemn overtones, and some provocative questions. The girl Badi'at sings Pamina's words 'Herr, ich bin zwar Verbrecherin', while one of the wicked brothers actually quotes the Evangelist from the Matthäus-Passion: 'Und alsbald krähete der Hahn', virtually blasphemous in this context.
The production by Dieter Dorn, together with the designs by Jürgen Rose, are both simple and enchanting, with wonderful colour effects by Tobias Löffler. The performers are required to be nimble, but they rise to the occasion, especially Matthias Görne, whom I haven't previously regarded as suited to romping on a steeply raked stage. And the love duet in the well has both him and his beloved, sung by Laura Aikin, perched at uncomfortable and precarious angles, despite which they sing beautifully throughout... Görne is perfect, using those extraordinary features to maximum effect. His father, the old man, is sung with warmth and intensity in what amounts to a great reading by Alfred Muff. At the centre of the action is the benign Demon, winged and very hard to allocate to a species, marvellously rendered in every way by John Mark Ainsley, and perhaps deservedly he gets the biggest ovation of all. Hanna Schwarz plays a male role with distinction too, a great artist who has not often received full recognition. Anyone else attempting this opera will have his work cut out to emulate this production of what is not a deep piece, but one full of enchantments.Michael Tanner, International Record Review, 6/1/2005
Hans Werner Henze’s Arabian Nights opera, seen here in its premiere production from Salzburg in 2003, is ideal material for DVD. Dieter Dorn’s staging, as filmed by Brian Large, with the colourful and strange sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose, delights the eye… As the three brothers, Axel Köhler, Anton Scharinger and Matthias Goerne begin with a comic scene as they set out on their separate journeys. Henze’s use of piano and percussion here underlines the absurdity of their predicament. A long duet for the two lazy brothers ends with them asleep, their heads in the empty bird cages.
Henze’s music is always sympathetic to the voices; the confrontation between Goerne as the virtuous brother, Al Kasim, and John Mark Ainsley as the Demon is superb, both visually and vocally. Although Henze originally composed the role of the Demon with Ian Bostridge in mind, Ainsley gives such a subtle and commanding performance that it is impossible to imagine anyone surpassing him. When Goerne cuts the Demon’s hair, and reveals his shaven head, stencilled with strange tattoos, the effect is fascinating – slightly repulsive but unforgettable.
Of course the bird-catching story also refers to Die Zauberflöte, but Goerne’s character is more Tamino than Papageno in spirit. The orchestral passage when Kasim retrieves the Hoopoe, verging on the blues, is a prelude to the sudden appearance of Hanna Schwarz, diguised with goatee beard, as the decrepit Malik. He/she sends Kasim off on his next quest, and the irony of a German opera that concerns an apparently Muslim character going to rescue a Jewish princess hardly needs stressing.
Laura Aikin has a spectacular solo in which she pleads with the despot Dijab, all the while singing while she is tied to Goerne’s back. Jürgen Rose’s setting for this scene, with African costumes and huge jungle flowers, is particularly impressive. Elsewhere there are some splendid visual tricks; Ainsley’s folded wings suddenly open up as a giant silhouette as he carries Al Kasim away; then Goerne and Aikin are trapped in a deep well, seen as a cut-out in the middle of the blacked out stage. Throughout, the use of colour and light is striking, with cinematic-style scene changes using geometric blinds and curtains.
A sad comedy, a moral fable – or a private joke? I found watching it an almost complete pleasure. The players of the Vienna Philharmonic under Markus Stenz show no sign of difficulty with the constantly shifting rhythms and styles.Patrick O'Connor, Opera Magazine, 12/1/2005