Hans Werner Henze’s ninth and, in the view of many, greatest opera, The Bassarids, seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance almost 50 years after it was first performed at the 1966 Salzburg Festival. One production has just opened the Rome Opera season and another has dominated the autumn in Mannheim. Composed to a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman based on Euripides’ Bacchae, it narrates the typically Greek tragedy of King Pentheus and the revenge taken by Dionysus for the death of his mother, Semele, in which Pentheus’s own mother, Agave, finds herself unknowingly bringing about her son’s death.

Karsten Mewes (Pentheus) and Roy Cornelius Smith (Dionysus) © Hans Jörg Michel
Karsten Mewes (Pentheus) and Roy Cornelius Smith (Dionysus)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Henze’s music, a blaze of colour, energy and seductive warmth, seems to sum up the previous century or more of Western music in an epic style that he made his own. Auden and Kallman encouraged the composer to make his peace with Götterdämmerung before beginning work, such is the scale of drama, and, though wildly original in itself, the sound-world seems to conjure up memories of everything from Bach to Stravinsky, Strauss’ Elektra to Berg’s Lulu, Mahler to Schoenberg. Lasting almost exactly two hours without an interval, The Bassarids is cast in the shape of the four movements of a symphony, culminating in a giant passacaglia as the drama reaches its gory climax.

<i>The Bassarids</i> © Hans Jörg Michel
The Bassarids
© Hans Jörg Michel

Frank Hilbrich’s production for Mannheim’s National Theatre transplants the ancient Greeks to a contemporary setting – the parallels with modern-day family sagas such as Dynasty are surely deliberate. Volker Thiele’s set divides the stage into two horizontal strata, the lower representing the House of Thebes’ book-filled drawing room, the upper a screen to show, through mostly live video (ably filmed by Robert Wanders behind this screen), the lascivious and ultimately gruesome activities on Mount Cytheron, where Dionysus has lured the people and, lastly, Pentheus himself. The resulting letterbox-shaped stage pictures arguably negate the drama’s sense of the epic, certainly given the association one has of Greek tragedies being enacting in vast amphitheatres, yet the focus was that much more intense, especially with the enlarged imagery on the ‘big screen’ above.

Unusually, Mannheim’s National Theatre habitually double-casts its new productions, which on the plus side gives it a pool of experience to draw upon for later revivals, but also means casting on a given night can feel a bit mix-and-match, with no guaranteed grouping of principals. No such worries on this occasion, though, since in practice the ensemble worked a treat, and indeed there was the real sense of a company working at the height of its collaborative powers. The cast was led by the Pentheus of Karsten Mewes, whose focused performance neatly delineated the character’s transformation as his attitude changes from wanting to ban the Dionysian cult to being tempted, in the guise of a woman, to try its attractions for himself. Roy Cornelius Smith’s Dionysus was well sung, but, given his presumed Anglophone roots, lost many of the words (the English text was a little hit and miss in its projection overall, and more than once I found myself looking to the German surtitles for guidance).

Karsten Mewes (Pentheus) and Edna Prochnik (Beroe) © Hans Jörg Michel
Karsten Mewes (Pentheus) and Edna Prochnik (Beroe)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Sebastian Pilgrim was a commanding Cadmos, despite a caveat for his ill health announced before the performance, and Raphael Wittmer made for a wily Tiresias. Heike Wessels was suitably domineering as Pentheus’ mother Agave and her final tragedy was movingly portrayed. Eunju Kwon as Cadmus’s daughter Autonoe and Edna Prochnik as the slave Beroe were also well-delineated as performances and characterisations. The chorus made a thrilling sound and with the extras gamely subjecting themselves to the voyeurism of the video camera on Mount Cytheron there was a sense of a people under a thrall. The orchestra, in many respects the most consistently important element in Henze’s conception, was dazzling in its execution of this complex yet richly rewarding score, all brought together under the unwavering command of conductor Rossen Gergov.