In 1976 at Covent Garden, I was at one of the first performances of Hans Werner Henze’s massive, multi-layered war opera We Come to the River. Some 36 years later, in Dresden on September 13, I attended the first night of the Semperoper’s new production of Henze’s Wir Erreichen den Fluss—a different title and language, but in every other respect the two pieces were identical. Yet I found it hard to believe that the haunting and transparent music drama I was watching was the same work that had baffled and annoyed some London audiences three and a half decades ago. Maybe memory plays tricks. Perhaps over a generation the ear and eye become attuned to what once seemed angry and chaotic. Was it Elizabeth Stöppler’s accomplished production and Erik Nielsen’s authoritative conducting which laid the ghosts of 1976? Or might it have been something else?
Henze’s most ambitious music drama was created in the final years of the Vietnam War in collaboration with the playwright Edward Bond. It succeeded a train of overtly political pieces including the Cuban-inspired slave saga El Cimarrón, the unfortunately-titled Tedious Way to the Home of Natascha Ungeheuer and Heliogabalus Imperator. Given their Marxist content and Bond’s own controversial track record at London’s Royal Court Theatre, it was easy to assume that this was another piece of 1970s polemic. Its parallel actions, its graphic scenes of gang rape and its vivid evocation of the madhouse carried echoes of Marat/Sade and the work of Artaud, Kantor and La Mama that had conquered UK stages at the turn of the decade. We Come to the River was no less challenging and often considerably louder.
Three orchestras on three stages and a cast of 54 named parts combine in the work to tell a tale of insurrection, brutal suppression and insanity. Sometimes contradictory events, dreams and reality bleed into one another, while grinding discords yield to gentle neo-Baroque madrigals, only to be obliterated by military marches and Viennese waltzes.
In Dresden neither the action nor the score ever seemed clotted or confused. In 1970s London the original producer Luca Ronconi withdrew when the Royal Opera House refused to remove the stalls to accommodate Henze and Bond’s demands for the action to surround the spectators. At the Semperoper, Stöppler and her designers Rebecca Ringst and Annett Hunger cracked the problem without needing to displace more than a handful of seats. The auditorium was sliced in half by a walkway, surrounded by three scaffolding stages wreathed in the smoke of battle. During the performance the walkway was able to accommodate not only the marching band and most of the singers, but also a truck, which rolled through the entire depth of the stalls.
However, what brought the work newly alive were the clarity, the passion and the surprising tenderness of the conductor, cast and players. Nielsen welded a group of over 30 house singers and a few international soloists into a seamless ensemble from which emerged a host of distinguished individual interpretations. The English baritone Simon Neal eloquently conveyed the disintegration and loss of faith of the General commanding the forces suppressing the revolt. The American tenor Timothy Oliver, playing the crucial part of the Second Soldier, grew in stature as he witnessed the suffering of two individual female war victims (Vanessa Goikoetxea and Iris Vermillion) and then rejected the commands of his totalitarian Emperor. This travesti role, with its fearsome extended scena drawing on the life of the Buddha, was taken by the German mezzo Anke Vondung, who mixed virtuosity and vocal tone to blood-curdling effect. Above all, the unobtrusive authority of Nielsen’s conducting steered a path through the work’s many layers to reveal the humanity beneath Henze’s tangle of orchestral barbed wire.
In a detailed and careful essay published shortly after the work’s premiere, Henze wrote: ‘All fear and anxiety have left the music; the end is like a new beginning in a world free from terror and injustice.’ It certainly seemed so in Dresden and the management of the Semperoper must be congratulated on investing the rehearsal time and considerable cash needed to return Henze’s dream to the stage. The fragile composer certainly deserved the cheers which greeted him as he entered the auditorium in what has since turned out to be one of his final public appearances. Having been baffled in London in 1976, I would now argue that in many ways it is Henze’s masterpiece and that it cries out for a new production in the UK.