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Work of the Week – Hans Werner Henze: Elegy for Young Lovers

On 2 July, a production of Henze’s opera Elegy for Young Lovers will be staged by the Armel Opera Competition and the Liszt Academy in celebration of what would have been Henze’s 90th birthday on 1 July. The production will be directed by András Almási-Tóth with the Pannon Philharmonic conducted by Gergely Vajda at the Thália Theatre, Budapest.

Elegy for Young Lovers is set in an inn near the Austrian Alps where poet Gregor Mittenhofer has assembled a circle of loyal companions: his secretary countess Carolina, his physician Dr. Reischmann, his lover Elizabeth, and Hilda Mack who is haunted by the husband she last saw 40 years ago before he vanished in the mountains. Elisabeth falls in love with Toni Reischmann, the son of Mittenhofer’s doctor and although Mittenhofer agrees to let Elisabeth go, he begs her for one last labour of love: The young couple must bring him an Edelweiss from the mountains. Mittenhofer and the countess fail to warn Elizabeth and Toni that there is a snow storm approaching and soon after they set out into the mountains the storm comes. The young lovers both die, tightly embraced in each other’s arms.

Henze worked with two of his most admired American authors, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, to write the libretto. In his autobiography he writes about their collaboration:

I told them I wanted a small group of singers and a small instrumental ensemble comprising no more than twenty players. These instruments might perhaps play a role within the piece’s dramaturgical structure by being identified with particular characters. I told them that I would like the work to be a psychological drama, a chamber drama that would deal in the most general terms with questions of guilt and atonement, in other words, with subtle and complex issues. I was delighted with this draft and even while reading it could already hear the artificial air of the Hammerhorn buzzing in my ears. I could already hear the first notes of the music for the two lovers, delicate flowers, meadow saffron and violets, and the grotesque, Wotanesque huffing and puffing of Mittenhofer, the cold-hearted poet who offers up human sacrifices to his Muse. These people are real people, modern men and women, with their weaknesses and strengths, mortals, not gods or heroes or any other kind of supernatural beings. – Hans Werner Henze

Elegy for Young Lovers will also be staged in spring 2017 at the Theater an der Wien with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Albrecht. Further birthday performances include a concert of Henze’s chamber works to be performed in his home town, Gütersloh on 1 July, and the orchestral works L’usignolo dell’imperatore and Seconda sonata per archi in Montepulciano.