“Art and politics don’t mix”, a programming manager from NDR radio reportedly declared at Das Floβ der Medusa's 1968 planned première – an absurd statement, considering Hans Werner Henze’s left-wing revolutionary sentiments and the fact that he dedicated the work to Che Guevara. As the performance was about to begin, a student unfurled a portrait of Guevara. The programming manager tore it down, triggering vociferous protests from communists and anarchists. The chorus refused to perform and riot police stormed the hall, the actual première eventually taking place in 1971. Henze’s masterly “oratorio volgare e militare” (popular and military oratorio) has now received its Dutch première, in the 1990 revision, in which Henze toned down the explicit final percussive rhythm echoing the chant “Ho! Ho! Ho! Chi Minh!”.

Markus Stenz © Catrin Moritz
Markus Stenz
© Catrin Moritz

It was librettist Ernst Schnabel who proposed the subject matter to the composer. In 1816 the French Royal Navy frigate Méduse ran aground on a sandbank on its way to re-establish the colony in Senegal. Due to a woeful shortage of lifeboats, around 150 souls ended up drifting on a makeshift raft. For 13 horrendous days they battled thirst, starvation and madness and were driven to murder, suicide and even cannibalism. Only ten men survived. The incident was blamed on the incompetence of the ship’s émigré captain and provoked public outrage directed at the newly reinstated monarchy. Fascinated by this brutal odyssey, Théodore Géricault captured its last survivors, on the threshold between life and death, in his theatrical painting Le Radeau de la Méduse (1818-1819).

Géricault’s polemical canvas is the blueprint for Schnabel’s libretto. Charon, ferryman of the underworld, narrates the events, unequivocally indicting the established order, represented by the ship’s officers, for the fate of the underclass, voiced by the chorus. At the beginning, the chorus is on the left of the stage, the side of the living, with soloist Jean-Charles, who assumes leadership of the raft. On the right stands the other soloist, La Mort. As the living perish, they cross over to Death’s side. Schnabel’s incendiary prose alternates with poetic reflections on human tragedy in an indifferent universe. His images are potent, such as a drum skin moon on which Nothing beats. Excerpts from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées and Dante’s Divine Comedy lend the libretto a timeless grandeur.

Equally grand is the tragic dimension of Henze’s score, not least because of its huge chorus. At the same time, its complex orchestral colours are finely transparent: the unusual orchestral make-up includes a pared-down violin section, four oboes with different pitches, a piano and eclectic percussion. Although a contemporary of avant-garde exponents such as Pierre Boulez, who considered his postmodern lyricism reactionary, Henze did not adhere to any school, but distilled various influences into his own emotionally powerful idiom. The dialogue between chorus and soloists and the arioso passages in Das Floβ der Medusa are reminiscent of Bach’s Passions. The desperation of the survivors is heard in deafening choral dissonance and coiling woodwinds and muted brass transport us into their increasingly hallucinatory state. The ever-swelling chorus of the dead sings hymns of ethereal compact harmony.

There were numerous moments of wrenching beauty and pounding drama at Saturday’s performance at the Concertgebouw. Unfortunately, it also lacked sustained narrative and musical tension and failed to crystallise as a dramatic whole. As Charon, Franz Grundheber’s factual approach to the narration proved too placid. His diction was faultless, but he often sounded more like a vicar delivering a contemplative sermon than a narrator of horrific events. Baritone Roman Trekel as Jean-Charles sang with lyrical sensitivity, essaying a touching portrait of singular determination in the face of terror. His voice was drowned out in the loud ensembles, undermining the character’s heroic authority, but gained dramatic stature in the “Ballad of the Man on the Raft”, sung by the dying Jean-Charles before flagging down the rescue ship Argos. Lenneke Ruiten was superb as La Mort, an alluring and menacing siren reeling in the dead. Her focused, gleaming soprano vaulted the gaping intervals and sliced through the clashing ensembles with ease. Especially memorable was her hypnotic solo with the shimmering dead children’s chorus. Aside from a few flaccid entries and an occasional lack of textual definition, the choral forces (Netherlands Radio Choir, Flemish Radio Choir, Netherlands National Youth Choir and Netherlands National Children’s Choir) delivered sterling work. Two young soloists sang the drowned children’s duet with unadorned pathos. The choristers voicing the final group of survivors presented further proof of the full dramatic potential of this work. The raw portrayal of their watery hell made the final scenes come alive as if this were a staged performance.

The Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Markus Stenz boasted an agile percussion section and surrounded the singers atmospherically. However, certain passages, such as the orchestral introduction to the devastating “Finale”, sounded uncoordinated, and others transitioned heavily into each other. The scorching fortissimos were, however, wholly satisfying. Despite the inconsistent level of dramatic involvement, Markus Stenz and his crew mapped a noteworthy, at times gripping, musical journey.