On Saturday, Vienna’s Volksoper will premiere a double bill with a twist: Pagliacci will not be paired with Cavalleria Rusticana, but rather Hans Werner Henze’s first opera, Das Wundertheater. Based on a Cervantes tale, Henze’s forty-minute chamber piece uses an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ plot device to expose bourgeois hypocrisy and prejudice: a troupe travels from town to town putting on what is billed as a stunning theatrical spectacle, but only true Christian believers who were born in wedlock will be able to see the action. Nothing actually takes place on stage, though the audience pretend to be amazed and delude each other into swallowing the hoax with extravagant descriptions of the action. When a soldier in the crowd dares to discredit the fraud, his dissent is stifled with an spontaneous act of brutality as the audience, revealing their true colours, turn on him.

Hans Werner Henze © Schott Promotion / Peter Andersen
Hans Werner Henze
© Schott Promotion / Peter Andersen

The present ‘Evening for Hans Werner Henze’, for which no programme was announced in advance, turned out (as I half expected) to be one of those work introduction events which involve a lot of talking and are usually moderated by a journalist or someone on the production team: in this case, it was Helene Sommer, the dramaturg. She was joined by conductor Gerrit Prießnitz and Thomas Schulte-Michels, the director for the upcoming premiere. While the panel showed obvious enthusiasm for the composer, there were few fresh insights into the music, and that well-worn observation of the communist with the acquisitive compulsion for luxury commodities kept cropping up.

While there are many interesting things to be said about Henze, on this occasion their expression was left to two singers and the Volksoper’s newly appointed concertmaster. To hear the slightly covered quality of an English tenor in the Peter Pears mold at the Volksoper seemed as incongruous as genuine Viennese dialect in a London Fledermaus, but the oddity didn’t occupy my thoughts for long, so powerful was Stephen Chaundy’s performance of Henze’s Three Auden Songs. Barely a line of the text escaped without some subtle nuance added, and despite the distinctive sound of his voice Chaundy always made Henze sound firmly like Henze, and not Britten. Soprano Heidi Wolf played with the idea of a weakened voice in Henze’s cantata Whispers on Heavenly Death, written shortly after a suicide attempt, though I am not sure this is what Walt Whitman’s poem or indeed Henze’s music is about, and her constrained sound grated at times.

Violinist Anne Harvey-Nagl’s performance of the short Sonatine (an arrangement of music from Henze’s opera for children Pollicino) aimed more for expressive multivalence, and she hit her several marks compellingly; here was Henze the master-craftsman and his exquisite turns of phrase, the strongly narrative style of the politically committed composer who sees music as language, and the principled, stricture-rejecting survivor whose writing projects his own changeable subjectivity. The last point, I hasten to add, is but a rewording of perhaps the central claim Henze has to make about his music, and one that shouldn’t be allowed to pass unchallenged (let us not forget that integral serialism’s fiercest critic maintained, for a long time even after his rebellion against Darmstadt orthodoxy, something approaching a dependency on its procedures at the drafting stage of new works). The idea of an extended work introduction to shed light on an unfamiliar opera is admirable as an audience outreach gesture, but the audience in question is more than musically literate enough to follow a more critical discussion of musical topics and tensions than the superficial commentary of this Henze evening allowed.