“What a funny kind of fairy tale we’ve gotten into!” proclaims one of the characters in Elegy for Young Lovers, Hans Werner Henze’s odd 1963 opera. The audience may sympathize. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto of an uninspired poet in search of a new muse is not standard operatic fare. Despite the familiar plot devices of a love triangle, a madwoman, and a blizzard (well, the latter is not so common), its elusive tone and Henze’s kaleidoscopically shifting score are hard to pin down to any operatic school. It’s fascinating, and this co-production between the Curtis Opera Theatre and Opera Company of Philadelphia is well worth seeing.

Sarah Shafer and Joshua Stewart, © Curtis Institute of Music
Sarah Shafer and Joshua Stewart,
© Curtis Institute of Music

Auden and Kallman’s libretto has the density and literary quality of a play, and the cast’s excellent diction (with the aid of projected surtitles) made the sung English text perfectly comprehensible. While not without darkly comic moments, it is more serious than Auden and Kallman’s libretto for The Rake’s Progress. The setting is an Alpine inn. The central figure is famed poet Gregor Mittenhofer, accompanied in the mountains by his secretary, a sycophantic doctor, and his young mistress. Mittenhofer’s inspiration has run dry and the ravings of the inn’s resident madwoman, Hilda Mack, have proven worthy of publication under his name. But the doctor’s son and his mistress fall in love and Hilda begins to regain her sanity, disrupting Gregor’s equilibrium. Eventually he abandons the young lovers in a blizzard, their tragic deaths finally giving him fodder for a new poem, the elegy of the opera’s title.

Mittenhofer is a real villain: manipulative, exploitative, and valuing his own achievement above human life and emotion (“What the world needs is warmer hearts, not older poets,” another character protests). In the name of art he destroys everything around him, and holds everyone in his circle under his spell. (Hilda, once sane, is an exception.) Some have theorized that Auden and Kallman intended the libretto as an attack on Benjamin Britten in particular, but it can also be seen as a generalized statement on the status of art and artists in the upheaval of the 1960s.

Henze’s music displays a collage of styles. The jagged coloratura of Hilda’s mad scenes recall Berg, a beautiful duet for Hilda and young lover Elizabeth recalls Richard Strauss. The virtuosic solo writing for the orchestra of 25 players (winds and percussion predominate) recalls, of all things, Britten. Despite the talky libretto, there are conventional ensembles and set pieces, as well as some Sprechstimme. While often very beautiful, the complex libretto tends to take the lead, and is more memorable than the score.

The entire cast and most of the orchestra consisted of Curtis students. That such a small conservatory was able to field two complete casts to sing this difficult score is remarkable, particularly considering that the March 16 cast did not have a single weak link. Well schooled, confident, and most in possession of impressively solid technique, the only thing they lacked was the kind of vocal individuality that comes only with time. Some of the most beautiful singing came from sopranos Sarah Shafer and Alize Rozsnyai as Elizabeth and Hilda, respectively. Jarrett Ott was an authoritative and yet appropriately enigmatic Mittenhofer, singing with a warm baritone. J’nai Bridges’s smoky, well-projected mezzo as the secretary Carolina was another standout. Contemporary opera veteran George Manahan conducted, keeping an excellent balance between the small but loud and enthusiastic orchestra and the singers. The intimate Perelman Theater is an ideal venue for this large chamber opera.

Chas Rader-Schieber’s stage direction kept the action moving and the cast proved adept at singing from various difficult physical positions. The production’s unit set, designed by David Zinn, was dark and shiny, a black room with black furniture conveying an impersonal, inhuman smoothness. Jacob Climer’s costumes looked like the worst of 1960s fashion. While both set and costumes were exemplary in atmosphere, it was sometimes unclear exactly what this atmosphere had to do with the opera, or why every woman had to deal with vertiginous high heels.

As Elizabeth and her boyfriend Toni die on the side of the mountain, they imagine forty years of married life that are not to be, in a beautiful, haunting duet. Mittenhofer steps forward to deliver his titular elegy, but the opera ends before we can hear it. Did Henze, in his duet, indulge in the very celebration of death that the libretto condemns in Mittenhofer? Can he have it both ways? Auden and Kallman don’t let us forget these questions.