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Work of the Week – Hans Werner Henze: Der junge Lord

On 2 September, the Opernhaus Hannover will present Hans Werner Henze’s much-performed comic opera, Der junge Lord, for the first time in the opera house’s history with director Bernd Mottl and Mark Rhode conducting the Niedersächsische Staatsorchester.

Henze and the librettist Ingeborg Bachmann shared a lifelong friendship and close artistic partnership resulting in several operas including Der Prinz von Homburg and Der Idiot. Der junge Lord was their final collaboration, commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Bachmann selected Wilhelm Hauff’s fable Der Affe als Mensch (The Ape as a Man) as basis for her libretto, adding the lovers Wilhelm and Luise to the story.

Hans Werner Henze‘s Der junge Lord – Fascination and blindness

The setting is Hülsdorf-Gotha at the beginning of the 19th century. The dignitaries and citizens await the arrival of the wealthy Englishman Sir Edgar who has purchased a house in the town. They have prepared a pompous reception ceremony and are consternated when Sir Edgar’s secretary announces that his master has no interest in attending. The resentment only increases when Sir Edgar subsequently invites the artists of a travelling circus into his home; his house is daubed with xenophobic slogans during the night.

Later, the lovers Wilhem and Luise arrange a clandestine evening rendezvous but are startled by loud screams emanating from Sir Edgar’s house. Sir Edgar explains that his nephew Lord Barrat, who has just arrived from London, is in the process of learning the German language and his mistakes are being corrected with the aid of corporal punishment.

A couple of weeks later, Sir Edgar holds a reception to introduce the young Lord. The guests are captivated by his eccentric behaviour, which is imitated enthusiastically by all assembled. Only Wilhelm is disturbed by the manner in which the young lord is wooing Luise; her mother begins to plan an engagement between Luise and Lord Barrat. During the ensuing exuberant dancing, the young lord is increasingly plagued by wild convulsions. Finally, he tears off his clothes and reveals his true colours: he is the circus monkey Adam who has been dressed up as a nobleman. Sir Edgar sends him from the room, leaving behind the shocked citizens of Hülsdorf-Gotha.

In Der junge Lord, Henze closely follows the formal structure of ‘opera buffa’ with its typical ensembles and the virtual exclusion of arioso elements. He uses traditional musical forms such as folk songs, children’s songs, minuets and waltzes. Under the surface, though, Henze and Bachmann succeed in creating a double bluff: The illusion of light entertainment serves the purpose of emphasising their criticism of society. This can be seen in Bachmann’s use of a quote by Goethe in the libretto “In the German language you lie… That’s an important and serious business”.

The main target of this piece is: the lie. It is being born out of greedy curiosity, deceived material hopes, provincial showing-off and offended vanity. – Hans Werner Henze

Performances of Der junge Lord will continue at the Opernhaus Hannover until 19 October.