Austria Salzburg Festival  – Henze, The Bassarids: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Kent Nagano (conductor). Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 23.8.2018. (MB)
Dionysus – Sean Panikkar
Pentheus – Russell Braun
Cadmus – Willard White
Tiresias, Calliope – Nikolai Schukoff
Captain, Adonis – Károly Szemerédy
Agave, Venus – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Autonoe, Proserpine – Vera-Lotte Böcker
Beroe – Anna Maria Dur
Dancers – Rosalba Guerrero Torres, Hector Buenfil Palacio, Flavie Haour, Katharina Platz, Javier Salcedo Hernandez
Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Sczczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)
The Bassarids returns to Salzburg, where it was born, now more than half a century ago, in 1966, only this time in Auden and Kallman’s original English. (That premiere had to wait until two years later, in Santa Fe.) What a thrill it proved to hear those opening orchestral cries once again from the Vienna Philharmonic, swiftly followed by its equally fine chorus: ‘Pentheus is now our Lord!’ Kent Nagano succeeded admirably, moreover, in balancing the claims of reason and abandon. How one does that may remain a matter of debate – I should not have minded a little more of the latter, especially during the ‘Hunt of the Menads’ – but, drawing upon his experience of having conducted the work (in German) in Munich ten years ago, Nagano made his own case, revealing oft-hidden, if not quite unsuspected Stravinskian neo-Classical tendencies: very much in the line of the contest – all too often misunderstood as synthesis – between Stravinsky and Schoenberg in Henze’s preceding Prince of Homburg.
The return was, doubtless aptly, not quite a return: restoration, rather than renewal, should never be the aim. The premiere production, conducted by Christoph Dohnányi, had been seen and heard next door to the Felsenreitschule, in Karajan’s Grosses Festspielhaus. It was near enough, though, to claim lineage – so important a concept for the authority and authoritarianism, as well as attempted, pretended liberation therefrom, in this work, be it ‘dramatic’ or ‘aesthetic’. (Is there, should there, be a distinction?) This was the work, above all, that made Henze’s name in the mainstream – and had him fear what he had become, had him urgently question his ‘world success’. (What did that mean, he asked in an interview many years later? To be a Leonard Bernstein? No, thank goodness. And now the latter’s centenary has peaked, perhaps we may return to considering him a great conductor and a negligible composer.)
Only two years later, Henze would proclaim, with all the natural theatricality that had stood him in such good stead here: ‘Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men.’ There was, however, and still is a great deal of revolution in The Bassarids. As with Wagner, as with Stravinsky, as with any number of other artists, we should be wary of taking Henze’s self-assessment on trust. He had his reasons, many of them good, for reacting and indeed for presenting himself as he did. Excessive cynicism is (by definition) unnecessary. Nevertheless, a fine production from Krzysztof Warlikowski – we might well consider it almost a companion piece to recent operatic work of his on Die Gezeichneten (Munich) and From the House of the Dead (London), as well as to his justly celebrated Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris) – reminds us not only why many consider this the composer’s single finest stage work, but how in some senses it may be seen pre-emptively to criticise as well as necessitate his most overtly ‘politically engaged’ works of the decade to come.
The opening takes us back to Euripides, to Dionysus before the palace at Thebes, outlining the reasons for his visit. (Some of that material is also present in the introductory ‘Mythological Background’ section to my Schott score, at least implied to be part of the penumbra to the ‘work’.) Dionysus speaks, amplified, very much as a god from beyond. We see a mysterious hooded figure, whom we presume to be him – he is subsequently confirmed as such – who may or may not actually be speaking these words. His mission, however, is clear – at least from his side of the family, argument, and palace walls. He will avenge himself and his mother, Semele, upon their remaining earthly family and, as we guess and soon will learn, upon the society, politics, and cultural practices of the city over which it rules. When we see the royal family, its old guard first, Pentheus only later, its classic modern authoritarian-fascism is clear. Warlikowski’s frequent collaborator, Małgorzata Sczczęśniak accomplishes much with male military uniforms and female ‘look’. Cadmus in a wheelchair veers just the right side of cliché, which seems just about right: he is, after all, a retired dictator, and he would wear dark glasses; more to the point, perhaps, our thoughts concerning such matters are more often than not clichés, in need of a little revision – or revolution.
But is it this revolution? Is it indeed possible to revise or to overthrow what needs to be revised or overthrown, whether in or out of the opera house? Dionysus’s conquest is one we all want. None of us wants Pentheus’s authoritarianism: as much, surely, Theodor Adorno’s ‘authoritarian personality’ and Herbert Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’ as previously existing fascism. Indeed, Russell Braun’s performance proved well judged: a tricky and thankless task. That, perhaps, is why we find Cadmus, here in a richly sympathetic performance from Willard White (the best I have heard from him in some time), more sympathetic than perhaps we ought. We are most likely to sympathise, indeed to empathise, with the women – note, as dramaturge Christian Longchamp advises us, ‘couples are absent. Cadmus, Agave, Antonoe and Pentheus live alone, as do the prophet Tiresias and the wet-nurse Beroe’ – who lead us if not on then towards Dionysus’s merry, intoxicating, catastrophic dance, towards Semele, ‘at once free, dominating and castrating’. Nikolai Schukoff, a mesmerising Dionysus in Munich, returned as a Tiresias both manipulator and manipulated, blind and yet seeing, in an equally brilliant, disconcerting performance here.
As the Pasolini-echoing (120 Days of Sodom) narrative unfolds, as bourgeois, patriarchal repression comes under assault, none of us would wish it otherwise – certainly not the figures of the court who sado-masochistically enact the Calliope Intermezzo (here included, although sometimes cut with the composer’s approval), and certainly not Pentheus’s own mother, Agave, whose personal tragedy will be revealed as glorification of the hunt-revolt that has killed her son. Think not only of the price, which is obvious (heart-rendingly so as we observe, share in the recognition of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner), but the gain? Dionysus has moved on. He is as much our unconscious desire, certainly so in so superlative performance as that of Sean Panikkar, as god. Or is that not what a god is anyway? Might not Pentheus have told us that? For whilst we were won over – we were, were we not? – by Panikkar’s mystery, his lyrical yet also heroic tenor, the vulnerability and indeed the mental instability implied by his involuntary shaking, we persuade ourselves that we knew all along there was something unhealthy to the cult of Semele, show tomb we always see before us, venerated by many who should have known better.
We always knew better, did we not? We never really backed the Nazis, the fascists, the misogynists, the homophobes, the… And yet, on the other hand, we had already foreseen the objections. We actually rather liked those ‘new museums, opera houses, and world premieres’ all along. The ‘realisation of dreams’: no, that was someone else, not us. Until Dionysus returns and we, the crowd, the sheep, continue the revolutionary dance we had always wanted. ‘Perché siamo tutti in pericolo.’ Or, to quote Helmut Lachenmann, in his far from conciliatory open letter to Henze (who had, in fairness to Lachenmann, proved far more hostile to him):
… that outbreak of the muzzled subject into a new emotional immediacy will be untrue, and degenerate into self-deception, wherever the fat and comfortable composer, perhaps slightly scarred structurally and therefore the more likely to complain, sets up house once again in the old junk-room of available emotions.
… Those who believe that expressive spontaneity, and innocent drawing from the venerable reservoir of affect, make that struggle of the fractured subject with itself superfluous, and spare it an engagement with the traditional concepts of material, have disabled their own voice. They are gladly allowed to sit in the lap of a society which encourages those who support its repressive game.
Did Henze, or at least his material, know that all along – in their way, just as much as Lachenmann? Wolfgang Rihm, admired by both, might tell us; did he not, after all, write a Nietzschean opera entitled Dionysos, also premiered at Salzburg? Are such ready equations between the aesthetic and the political part of the problem, the solution, or both?