L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe; Ein deutches Lustpiel in elf Tableaux aus dem Arabischen
(The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love; a German comedy in eleven tableaux based on the Arabic)
Premiered in Salzburg (this performance) in 2003
Music and Libretto by Hans Werner Henze (*1926)
2003 Live Composite (August 12-26) at the Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Conductor - Markus Stenz
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Stage Director - Dieter Dorn
Video Director - Brian Large
Sets and Costumes - Jürgen Rose
Al Radshi (the old man known as The Excentric Widower), Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of Black Babboons - Alfred Muff
Badi'at el-Hosn wal Dschamal (A Jewish girl) - Laura Aikin
Al Kasim (The Sharer), Al Radshi's youngest son - Matthias Goerne
Der Dämon (The Demon) - John Mark Ainsley
Malik (the ancient Sultan of Pati) - Hanna Schwarz
Dijab (the old tyrant of Kipungani) - Günter Missenhardt
Adschib (The Wayward), another son, good for nothing - Axel Köhler
Gharib (The Untrustworthy), another son, a sly fox - Anton Scharinger
EuroArts DVD release (2005), NTSC, 16:9 anamorphic, Region code zero, Running Time 143', Sound Formats PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1. Subtitles in English, German, and French. No extras.
Liner notes with a 2-page essay in English, German, and French, a few production photos in B&W and color, and chapter list with characters and durations.
This is the last work for the stage by the accomplished elderly composer Henze (at least, that's what he said, but since he's still alive, one never knows - [correction - as clarified by schigolch below, he didn't stop after all and has written two more]). He was inspired by two hoopoes who frequently flit about his olive grove at his house in an Italian village south of Home.
He decided to write the libretto himself (a first for him) and compose this light opera in two acts and eleven tableaux that is in part inspired by Mozart's The Magic Flute. The basis for the plot is a kind of popular story from Syria coming from Arab and Persian traditions, but Henze did incorporate some German folk traditions into it as well. Henze's score reminds critics of Berg, Debussy, and Stravinsky, and was considered to be his richest and most entrancing opera score. His blended sonorities and vocal writing are considered to be seductive, and his instrumentation beguiling.
Here is the synopsis, which I lifted from the Wikipedia article:
Al Radshi, an old man, who lives in a tower on Manda, the island of the black baboons, laments the absence of his golden bird, a female hoopoe that used to visit him daily. Al Radshi once reached out to touch the hoopoe, which caused it to fly away. Since then, the bird has not been seen. Al Radshi asks his three sons to go off on a quest to find the hoopoe and return it to him. Two of the sons are untrustworthy and lazy, but the third, Al Kasim, is honest and brave. Al Kasim is the only son to go off in search of the hoopoe.
Al Kasim does find the hoopoe, with the help of a demon, who is a fallen angel with tattered black wings and who has been barred from heaven for an unidentified crime. Al Kasim then has to find and rescue a captive princess, Badi'eat el-Hosn. He does so, and falls in love with her. His next quest is to find a magic chest.
After Al Kasim has obtained these three treasures, the other two brothers reappear and push Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn down a well. Those two brothers return to their father and claim credit for performing Al Kasim's acts. However, Al Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn are eventually rescued. The other two brothers are expelled from the island. Al Kasim cannot marry Badi'aet el-Hosn, however, until he completes one more quest. The opera leaves unresolved the question of whether Al Kasim and Badi'aet el-Hosn are united at the end.
Some people have made the following parallels with The Magic Flute:
Al Kasim = Tamino
Badi'at el-Hosn wal Dschamal = Pamina
Dijab = Sarastro
There are also parallels with Mozart's Seraglio
in some passages. Henze himself acknowledges these influences when he mentions how close he had felt to Mozart when he was composing L'Upupa.
There are also several fairy tale elements - Al Kasim listens to singing flowers at one point; Al Kasim and Badi'at at another point are trapped in a deep well and it turns into a shaft through which limits can be transcended; there are malevolent gnomes who perform grotesque dances in response to magic words.
While Henze does tone-paint these fairy tale elements, he does so with restraint and economy of notes, unlike his exhuberant and over-the-top previous opera Venus and Adonis
which required three interlocking orchestras to be performed.
Here, Henze seems to be saying his farewell and trying to let go (which is what Al Radshi does when his bird is returned to him - this is even more clear when we realize that Al Radshi with his stance of watching everything from his tower, represents the composer himself). The upupa (Italian for hoopoe) is the symbol of beauty in art, and can't be owned by anybody. In the last scene the opera fades away into the blue evening light, when the Grand Vizier and Badi'at silently watch Al Kasim ride away, while the music becomes dreamy as if Henze was addressing the listener in a magical sound-poem, his regretful gesture of farewell, his swan song.
Now, the performance.
The DTS sound on this DVD is amazing, with a very impressive opening effect of a bird flapping its wings and flying around the listener from one surround speaker to the next.
Beautiful minimalistic, clever staging with colorful scenarios. The image definition is not the greatest though, and one regrets that this is not a blu-ray disc.
The opening scene has Alfred Muff in great form, singing beautifully and convincingly, narrating the story of the disappearance of the hoopoe. The sounds emanating from the orchestra are intriguing and interesting. Nine minutes into the performance, I'm sure that I'll enjoy this quite a lot.
Oh well, the second scene is not as good. Again the scenarios are very interesting, but Axel Köhler the countertenor has a very annoying voice. Anton Scharinger on the other hand is very good.
The third scene shows us the fallen angel with dark wings (the demon) and the singer does a good job, both vocally and in terms of acting - actually so far he's the best singer: John Mark Ainsley, a tenor. The scene also contains our hero, Al Kasim. Unfortunately baritone Matthias Goerne is not as good as Ainsley. His voice is sort of restrained and doesn't project well. He doesn't make any mistakes, but he is sort of bland (and unlike other baritones, ladies, his paunchy self is not attractive). His acting is equally weak.
The strikingly beautiful sets (which sort of reproduce the surface of a small planet) is one of the best parts of this production (it is a co-production of the Teatro Real from Madrid and the Deutsche Oper Berlin).
Spectacular scene transition with huge dark wings. What a staging!
The short orchestral intermezzo is fabulous. I really like Henze!
Next, big moon, blue lights, and we're in a garden. The music is delicate and melodious. The opera suddenly turns into Singspiel, and several fantastic creatures appear. It becomes very Magic Flute-like. Malike, a trouser role, makes his entrance. The hoopoe has been caught. Costumes, masks, colors, music, everything in this scene is wonderful.
Hanna Schwarz, mezzo, is another relatively weak link. Her voice is weak and fails in the lower side of her register, becoming throaty. It sounds really tired and the vibratto is a bit too wide. She is clearly passed her prime. On the other hand she is depicting an old man so it isn't entirely inappropriate.
The next scene (tableaux five) is the one on the cover picture, and features an argument between The Demon and Al Kasim. It is musically spectacular, very lively and dramatic.
Tableaux six brings us the girl, Badi'at. It's the same Laura Aikin who was Manon in Boulevard Solitude
and did very well in that performance, so I have good expectations. Beautiful scenario with a huge red flower (I mean, really huge, she's asleep inside the flower). The scene is phenomenal, the best one so far, with a trio (Badi'at, Al Kasim, and The Demon) and the visual side is a pleasure with the huge flower, a moon, an arch in the sky on top of which The Demon is perched. Laura is very good. The scene turns weird when out of the blue Al Kasim tries to rape Badi'at.
She cries for help, thieves in very creative costumes come in, steal the bird, capture the girl and Al Kasim. Dijab makes his entrance, and bass Günter Missenhardt is another strong link.
There is long narration which dampens the action a bit. Theatricality and pace are a bit uneven in this opera. Tableaux six is 21 minutes long, while the next one - a monologue by Al Radshi - is only 4'36" long. And it is beautiful too, with ominous music punctuated by interesting percussion and weird animal sounds.
Tableaux eight is bizarre. The Demon is all bloody. Badi'at and Al Kasim tend to his wounds. She tears up her skirt to make bandages, revealing nice legs (and later some cleavage too). Mr. Ainsley continues to be outstanding, he is by far the best artist in this production. They steal the chest (that's why the Demon was bloody, it was the aftermath of their raid).
Tableaux nine unfortunately brings back the annoying contralto. It is done in purpose, the vocal writing I suppose does call for some strident singing, but it is really unpleasant, I'm telling you. This guy has a screeching falsetto and it really hurts my ears.
There is a very beautiful tenor-baritone friendship duo by the demon and Al Kasim. It's a farewell. He leaves. Too bad. Gone is the best singer.
The two lovers are thrown into the well. We get another interesting orchestral intermezzo, full of sounds of wind and animals. The Wiener Philharmoniker by the way is its usual terrific self. Then the two lovers sing a very nice duo, inside the well. Laura's acting is great.
Oops, the Demon is back, good. He wasn't gone after all. He rescues the two lovers from the well, and sings beautifully some more. There is lots of pathos in this scene - a great one. By the way, Matthias Goerne's singing does get better as time goes by; he is projecting a little better after he warmed up, and he does have good musicality. The vocal writing for this part is truly wonderful. It rarely gets this good in contemporary opera.
This ends tableaux nine, the best one so far (and longest with more than 31 minutes, but unlike tableaux six it doesn't feel long since it is so varied and beautiful).
Tableaux ten is when the hoopoe is released. Very interesting orchestration, and a chorus. Then, the very lively short ballet of the gnomes when they open the chest. This is interrupted by the arrival of Badi'at and Al Kasim who say the magic words that make the gnomes stop. The two bad sons' game is exposed. They get banned. We're getting ready for the finale.
Tableaux 11, The Twilight Hour (aptly named - Henze's last moments of stage writing - [Note - actually, not, since schigolch has clarified that he continued to write for the stage after all, see below]).
Al Kasim can't get married to Badi'at yet, he had promised to take the Demon to the tree where the Apple of Life grows. He leaves. His father and Badi'at look at him leaving, walk to the line of horizon, have their backs to the public. It is very beautiful orchestration, with bells and percussion. Blue lights. The hoopoe is seen on the top of the arch. Sublime. Purely orchestral music, of the spectacular kind.
This is really good, folks.
A very, very good opera. A great orchestra. An excellent staging. Mostly good singers (with a few that weren't as good).
I'm sad that Mr. Henze doesn't want to compose more operas [see correction below] (he is really, really old now). He is certainly among the select small group of excellent contemporary composers who in my opinion have a chance at immortality. In a couple of centuries (if humankind is still around) he is the kind of composer that will be remembered. He makes an appearance on stage and takes a bow, to wild ovation.