Curious man, that Henze. Once flirting with communism and dreaming of a world revolution, he was also an aesthete and an erudite which – in part – made him decide to bid farewell to Germany and move to Italy in 1953.
His music has always been highly theatrical: he never liked the strict rules of serialism and felt a close connection with opera, which, unlike the hardliners of the avant-garde at the time, he had never labelled as obsolete. His discography therefore lists more than 20 musical theatre works, performed with great regularity.
Die Bassariden is among Henze’s finest and most important compositions. The English Language libretto, after ‘The Bacchantes’ by Eurypides, was written by W.H.Auden (does anyone remember the ‘Funeral Blues’ from Four Weddings and a Funeral?) and Charles Kallman.
It became a massive, through-composed score, anchored in the Wagnerian tradition (it is whispered that the librettists insisted that Henze, before turning to composing, study the ‘Götterdammerung’) and constructed as a four-movement symphony with voices.
The story of King Pentheus, who, by wanting to banish all sensuality, comes into conflict with Dionysus and his adepts and is ultimately torn apart by his own mother, serves as a metaphor for the conflict between Eros and Ratio.
The opera premiered (in the German translation) at the Salzburg Festival in August 1966. It became a huge success, even prompting one of the reviewers to cry that Richard Strauss had finally got a successor. Henze laughingly and rightly dismissed this with a simple “where are the man’s ears?!”
A few years ago, the live-recorded premiere performance (in German translation) was released by Orfeo (C 605 032 1). The highly emotional playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker, under the inspired direction of Christoph von Dohnányi, reaches unprecedented heights.
Kostas Paskalis is very credible in his role of Pentheus and Kerstin Meyer moves as Agave.
It’s just a pity no libretto was included, after all, it’s not everyday fare.
[Editorial: A later performance of the English Language version was released on the Musica Mundi label, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, but this revised edition omits the interlude]
Das Urteil der Kalliope, interlude from Die Bassariden :