Henze to RunAway From

NorwayNorway Hans Werner Henze, El Cimarrón: Gregg Baker (baritone), Per Pålsson (guitar), Kerstin Thiele (flute), Mathias Friis-Hansen (percussion), Oslo Opera, 19.1.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Lars Kaalund
(Norwegian Premiere)

Photo courtesy Oslo Opera, © Jörg Wiesner

Since Beethoven’s Eroica, politics-as-inspiration for music seems to have taken a steady downhill trajectory. I wouldn’t claim that Hans Werner Henze’s 1970 chamber opera El Cimarrón (“A Recital for Four Musicians”) is the nadir, but I know I’d rather sit through Der Friedenstag than Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Marxist tripe put to modestly musical plink-plank-plunk again. Lars Kaalund’s production of the first-person account of Cuban runaway slave Esteban and the story of his escape, endurance, and exploits, was apt and budget friendly, with mobile modules for the performers, an empty box, a suspended tree trunk, and a few bed sheets.

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H.W.Henze, El Cimarrón ,
N.Isherwood, M.Anderson, M.Caroli, R.Rossi

Written for baritone (Gregg Baker in an impassioned, tenacious performance), guitarist (Per Pålsson), flute (Kerstin Thiele), and percussion (Mathias Friis-Hansen—though all musicians are called upon percussive duties to some degree), Henze’s music rises between the sung and spoken words like bubbles rising between fish, but it never presents an actual accompaniment for the exposed narration. Outstanding moments are few: Henze’s writing for Guitar (with hints of his Royal Winter Music permeating the soupçon of Cuban flavor) briefly shines through. And there is some compelling percussive force to the ‘chapter’ “Women”, in which Esteban gives an account of his proto-Wilt-Chamberlain-like appreciation of the other sex (and the occasional horse). The rest vacillates between well-intentioned demeanor, busy-ness, and unintended camp. Song rarely takes flight, the flute works its grating, tedious magic, and at best the story is playfully crude. Nothing of the fantastic grand post-romantic Henze operas, like The Bassarids or Elegy for Young Lovers, can be found here. Instead, you get animated social-consciousness theater that has aged badly in every way.

Jens F. Laurson