Hans Werner Henze (born Gütersloh, 1 July 1926; died Dresden, 27 October 2012).
W H Auden and Chester Kallman.
First performance: Schwetzingen (Schlosstheater), 20 May 1961.
First UK performance: Glyndebourne, 13 July 1961.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 25 August 1970.
Scottish Opera première: As above.
Henze is probably the most internationally successful German opera composer since the war. Certainly Elegy has been his most successful work in Britain, having had three separate productions: Glyndebourne 1961, Scottish Opera 1970 (revived in 1974 and 1975), and English National Opera 2010. The librettists, Auden and Kallman, later adapted Euripides for Henze’s Salzburg commission, The Bassarids (1966). They had already produced a successful text a decade earlier for Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress), and Elegy shares a similar black and sardonic sense of wit and of the ridiculous. The leading character, created by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is a monstrous egotist, a famous poet suffering from writer’s block who deliberately brings about the deaths of a young couple in a blizzard, in the hope that this will stir his creative juices to action once again.
Elisabeth Zimmer (soprano)
Hilde Mack, a widow (soprano)
Carolina, Grafin von Kirchstetten (contralto)
Toni Reischmann (tenor)
Gregor Mittenhofer, a poet (baritone)
Dr Wilhelm Reischmann (bass)
Joseph Mauer, a mountain guide (spoken)
The opera is set in 1910 at an inn in an Alpine resort. Mittenhofer spends time there every year to compose a poem, inspired by the ravings of Hilda Mack. She is an elderly lady who came to the inn on honeymoon forty years before, when her husband went for a walk and was killed in an avalanche. His body was never recovered, and Hilda, driven mad by grief, has lived at the inn ever since, costumed in an antique style. A wealthy aristocrat, Carolina, provides Mittenhofer’s financial support, and acts as his unpaid secretary. He constantly demands more money from her. He is also accompanied by his young mistress, Elisabeth, and by his doctor, Reischmann. The doctor’s son arrives just as the melting ice releases the body of Hilda’s long dead husband. Hilda’s consequent return to sanity stimulates Toni and Elisabeth to fall in love. Hilda, now released from the spell she has suffered under, can go away. Carolina tells Mittenhofer about Toni and Elisabeth, and in a jealous fury he sends them on a walk in the mountains, ostensibly to fetch him edelweiss flowers to provide inspiration. A blizzard blows up, and the young couple, trapped by it, happily die in one another’s arms. The epilogue shows Mittenhofer enjoying great public success as he recites his new Elegy to an audience in Vienna.
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