Premiered in Berlin in 2007, Hans Werner Henze’s penultimate opera takes a classical legend and toys creatively with it.
Christian Lehnert’s libretto possesses multiple facets, philosophical, psychological and poetic. In the first half, the story of Theseus’ wife Phaedra – who falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus, and takes her revenge on him when he rejects her – is played more or less straight, except for the inclusion of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, who by this point in the narrative is usually dead; the second half then plays further variations on the same dramatic theme. The result, though complex, is genuinely fascinating.
With just five roles, no chorus, and an orchestra of some 23 musicians – here the excellent Southbank Sinfonia, to whose confident playing conductor Edmund Whitehead brings a focused sense of direction – Phaedra proves an ideal piece to show off the talents of the current crop of Jette Parker Young Artists, who distinguish themselves in achieving an easy command of the composer’s subtle and intricate score.
Each of the principals makes their mark, with Hongni Wu suggesting Phaedra’s shame as well as her passion, while Filipe Manu’s Hippolytus is appropriately flummoxed by his stepmother’s demands.
Two gods show further interest in him, Jacquelyn Stucker’s Aphrodite revelling in her top register, though Patrick Terry’s Artemis needs clearer diction and his countertenor is occasionally unwieldy, while Michael Mofidian makes something surprisingly sympathetic out of the Minotaur. Takis’ design is strikingly effective and Noa Naamat’s staging flows perfectly.