One great advantage of premiering an opera in the United States is that audiences can’t compare productions and casts of past performances and find you lacking. One major disadvantage is that the audience has little or no fluency with the work and may struggle to comprehend its meaning and significance. With the U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra, which made its world premiere in 2007, the Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) capitalized on its single greatest advantage while minimizing the potential disadvantages of showcasing an unfamiliar opera.

© Kelly & Massa Photography
© Kelly & Massa Photography

Performed in German with English subtitles, Phaedra was presented in Center City Philadelphia at the Perelman Theater for five dates this month. The last show of their 2010-11 season, the Sunday matinee of Phaedra was nearly full, a testament to subscribers’ confidence in Philly opera’s ability to deliver stellar production values, regardless of the opera being presented.

Henze’s Phaedra is a modern chamber opera based on the classic Greek myth of Phaedra, wife of Theseus, the Athenian King who vanquished the Minotaur. When Phaedra falls in love with in her handsome stepson, Hippolyt, who is repulsed by her advances, she is embroiled a battle between feuding goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis, resulting in Hippolyt’s death at his father's hand and Phaedra's suicide.

Phaedra is not the kind of opera to attend without viewer preparation. It’s a wise practice to research what you’ll be seeing on the stage anytime you may be unfamiliar with the work. It’s imperative with a work like Phaedra—chamber opera, mostly atonal, both literal and expressionistic—to know what to expect, though I’m uncertain how many Philly operagoers had done their homework that afternoon. They seemed to be unaware of when to applaud though the program notes clearly explained the number of parts in Acts I and II, despite the fact that the curtain had fallen.

Regardless, Henze’s work, though well executed was hardly an accessible piece of opera. Credit must be given to OCP Artistic Director Robert Driver and Designer Philippe Amand whose skillful work took a largely disjointed, stridently discordant work and gave it meaning through staging and inspired use of moving screens and screened images.

Henze lived through one of the blackest periods in Earth’s history—the rise of the Third Reich and the domination of Europe (and nearly the world) by Nazi Germany. Henze was ostracized for repudiating all that Germany represented in the Second World War. His experiences framed by the horrors and devastation of World War II have informed his compositions yet can make them difficult to absorb in the 21st century.

I found most of the work jarring to the senses, and it took a while to acclimate myself to what seemed to be a relentless visual and aural assault in the undersized Perelman. At times the artists seemed to be bellowing as the score commanded they do, and I remember longing for a few measures of quiet, for the respite of white space, to let the work sink in though Henze has been widely praised for his refusal to serve anything other than his creative impulses in this and other work.

Phaedra had to be difficult to perform. The ensemble cast and the conductor and his orchestra did a superb job with the musical challenges mounting this show presented. While the first act is a more linear telling of the ancient myth, the second act is a highly personalized retelling of the myth through the lens of Henze’s private life. Highest honors go to stars soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor William Burden as Phaedra and Hippolyt. Other principal cast members included countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Artemis and Elizabeth Reiter as Aphrodite. These four were gifted and dedicated performers, whose vocal and acting gifts imparted meaning where the work seemed determined to confound and distance operagoers. Conductor Corrado Rovaris and the orchestra generously supported the performers them while offering up sounds and rhythms I’ve never before heard from an orchestra in opera performance.

In his program notes, director Robert B. Driver comments that Henze’s Phaedra is “almost certainly a new experience for most audience members.” While works of an unusual nature are important to take in now and again, to expand one’s musical frameworks, it is not the kind of opera I would often choose to take in and am reminded that contemporary opera can and should be more than something different from the styles preceding it. It must be capable of delivering meaning through words and music. When convention and musicality are juxtaposed with originality and atonality, each can make the other more pronounced and ultimately, more capable of delivering deeper meaning and a richer theatrical experience. Henze's Phaedra got my attention but failed to capture my affection.