Meister Records Henze’s “Der Prinz von Homburg”

cover C5405

HENZE: Der Prinz von Homburg / Štefan Margita, ten (Elector Friedrich Wilhelm); Helene Schneiderman, mezzo (The Electress); Vera-Lotta Böcker, sop (Princess Natalie); Robin Adams, bar (Field Marshall Dörfling); Michael Ebbecke, bar (Prince Friedrich of Homburg); Friedemann Röhlig, bs (Col. Obrist Kottwitz); Moritz Kallenberg, ten (Count Hohenzollen); Staatsorchester Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister, cond / Capriccio C5405

cover Classical MomentsComparison: Eberhard Büchner, ten (Friedrich Wilhelm); Susan Bickley, mezzo (The Electress); Mariannne Haggänder, sop (Princess Natalie of Orange); Robert Bork, bar (Field Marshall Dörfling); François Le Roux, bar (Prince Friedrich of Homburg); Alexander Malta, bass (Col. Obrist Kottwitz); Martin Zysset, ten (Count Hohenzollen); Royal Flemish Opera Chorus & Orch.; Bernhard Kontarsky, cond / Classical Moments  (live: Antwerp, March 18, 1995, available as downloadable MP3 files on Amazon or for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE or on Spotify).

Here’s a real rarity: a studio CD recording of Hans Werner Henze’s 1958 opera Der Prinz von Homburg, set to a libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann which was based on an 1811 play by Heinrich von Kleist. Essentially, the play and the opera are anti-German militarism, which is one reason why Kleist faced major problems of his own in 1811 just as Henze and Bachmann did in 1958. The opera was not premiered until two years later, and has never become a repertoire staple.

One thing I found interesting is that Karl Büchner’s play Woyzeck, on which Alban Berg’s famous opera was based, was also written, or at least started (Büchner left the play incomplete at the time of his death in 1837), is also anti-military. Apparently there was a trend among German playwrights of the early 19th century against their country’s militarism. Unlike Wozzeck, Der Prinz von Homburg has very seldom been recorded. The first issue was actually on a DVD by Arthaus Musik, a 1994 performance conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch featuring François de la Roux as Prince Friedrich, Mari Anne Häggander as Natalie, and William Cochran and Helga Dernesch as the Elector and Electress. The second was the “pirate” CD release by Classical Moments in 2013 of the 1995 Belgian performance listed above. Thus, this is the opera’s first official commercial release on CD.

As Karen R. Achberger wrote in an academic article on the opera,[1]

Although Bachmann declared that it was her intention to leave the original “so unbeschädigt wie möglich [as undamaged as possible],” she has, by reducing Kleist’s work by two-thirds, produced an opera libretto which is far from being a mere miniature of the original drama. Bachmann insisted, naively or cunningly, that in reducing the text she had not altered its meaning by stressing any particular interpretation or by eliminating the ambiguities of the original. She believed it was the function of the music, not of the libretto, to clarify the spirit of the play.

Those, then, who have read my recent article on The Problem With the Met—And All Opera Companies will understand in part what Bachmann was referring to, yet in a sense Bachmann was wrong. As I see it, the function of music in an opera is not necessarily to clarify the drama but rather to support the emotions and conflicts of the principal characters through sound in a way that mirrors the emotion without clarifying the text. For instance, Beethoven’s dramatic arias Ah, perfido! and Abscheulischer do not necessarily clarify the drama so much as they mirror the character’s emotions at the time. That is all music can do. As many famous conductors have said, the notes themselves mean nothing more than the notes as you hear them. If one were to hear Beethoven’s Ah, perfido without knowing the words, for instance, he or she wouldn’t have a clue what the dramatic situation described by the aria was about. The same is as true of Iago’s “Credo un in Dio crudel,” the only part of Verdi’s Otello that has no counterpart in Shakespeare’s play, or in fact any portion of this Henze opera.

Bachmann and Henze, 1965

Bachmann and Henze, 1965

Bachmann was a bit of an oddball in addition to being a brilliant writer. She was addicted to barbiturates, a habit which directly led to her death. Having failed to extinguish her cigarette, it set fire to her bedroom while she was sleeping. When she was rushed to the hospital, the doctors who treated here were unaware of her habit and gave her medications that interacted with the barbiturates, directly leading to her death. According to Wikipedia,

Bachmann’s literary work focuses on themes like personal boundaries, establishment of the truth, and philosophy of language, the latter in the tradition of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Many of her prose works represent the struggles of women to survive and to find a voice in post-war society. She also addresses the histories of imperialism and fascism, in particular, the persistence of imperialist ideas in the present. Fascism was a recurring theme in her writings.

The plot of the opera is as follows:

Act I
The opera takes place in 1675 at Fehrbellin and Berlin. The Prince of Homburg is in a dream-like state on the eve of the Battle of Fehrbellin in the castle park. He winds a laurel wreath and thinks he’s already the winner. The Elector watches him first, then takes the wreath from his hand, wraps his necklace around it and hands it to his niece Natalie. She backs away when the prince steps up to her and says: “Natalie, my girl, my bride”. He reaches for her, but can only hold her glove. The prince is confused and tells Hohenzollern what he saw in his dream just before. Field Marshal Dörfling issues the orders for the upcoming battle against the Swedes. So the prince should only intervene in the battle when the elector gives the order for this through an officer. The prince is inattentive, thinking all the time about Natalie and the upcoming aftermath.

The prince watches the battle from a hill. When the victory was already looming, he gave the signal to attack, although no directive from the elector had arrived. The scene darkens; an orchestra interlude interprets the further course of the battle. After it has grown light again, Natalie and the Elector appear. They are informed about the victory won, but also about the death of the elector. Homburg assures the women of his support, whereupon Natalie clings to him with confidence. Suddenly they learn that the elector is still alive. He had just swapped his horse with that of a subordinate. He pronounces the death penalty on anyone who intervened in the fight. To their general dismay, the prince is taken away.

Act II
Hohenzollern visits Homburg in prison and informs him that the court martial has given him the death sentence. The prince does not want to resign and trusts in the elector’s grace. Hohenzollern points out that Natalie should be married to the King of Sweden as a pledge of peace. Homburg suddenly realizes the seriousness of his situation. On Hohenzollern’s advice, Homburg is given to the Elector. On the way he passes a freshly dug grave, which he thinks is meant for him. He assures the Elector that he is only asking for his life and is even willing to give up Natalie.

For her part, Natalie goes to the Elector and asks for mercy for her beloved. If Homburg makes a statement that he considers the judgment to be unjustified, the prince will pardon him. The prince does not want to know anything about it. Natalie has ordered the Orange Regiment, which she heads, to Berlin. The officer corps comes to the elector and asks for mercy for the prince, but Homburg declares that he is ready to stand up for his failures.

Act III
After Homburg was taken away, the elector asked the officers if they could trust the prince again. They reply this in the affirmative, whereupon the elector tears up the death sentence. After a lengthy interlude with the orchestra, you see the prince awaiting death in the same place in the garden where he was in the first act. The elector and his entourage approaches him. Natalie presses the laurel wreath on his head. The promises of the dream face have become reality.

In general, I found this to be the most interesting of Henze’s opera scores. Taking the orchestral music by itself, it flows and develops exceedingly well. The problem that many traditional opera lovers will face in listening to it is the strophic quality of the vocal lines, which only occasionally tend towards lyricism, with the tenors getting the best music among the male participants. Count Hohenzollern gets an arietta in the first act (“Ein schöner Tag, so wahr ich leben”) that combines lyricism with serrated lines a la Stravinsky. Although I was able to procure a synopsis, however, a complete libretto remained elusive for me, so unfortunately I can’t tell how well Henze matched his music to Bachmann’s text except in terms of the rhythm of the words themselves.

I also liked the orchestral interlude in the first act depicting the battle scene; it has a stark, militaristic sound while juxtaposing two to three different lines of music in differing rhythms against one another. Of course, I realize that most opera listeners are not musicians or musical in any real sense and thus have little or no appreciation for such intricacies, and without overtly melodic lines, arias or high notes, they are apt to dismiss this opera as noisy rubbish. That is their problem, not mine and, hopefully, not yours. There is also a surprisingly lyrical duet for Natalie and Hohenzollern in the first act that I found very attractive.

Listening to this recording and comparing it to the 1995 performance available for free streaming online, one notes both similarities and differences. The primary differences are in the pacing and shaping of the music. Kontarsky conducts it in a very linear, sharply defined reading that allows no luftpausen or “breathing room” in the music. It is also a much faster performance, the first act clocking in around 39 minutes compared to Meister’s 43 and the second and third acts totaling 57 minutes compared to Meister’s 64. From a recording perspective, the Kontarsky performance has quite a bit of natural hall reverb around the voices whereas the singers and orchestra in the Meister recording are recorded a bit more clearly and professionally. Although I liked both, I found myself preferring Meister’s shaping of the score, which in addition to being a bit slower, allowing for an easier absorption of Henze’s spiky, atonal music, is also more flowing and lyrical. On the other hand—and this is important as well—some of the singers in the Meister performance have infirm voices while those in the Kontarsky performance do not. In the opening scene, for instance, where you hear the female voices singing together in the background, the assortment of wobbles they have mitigates against a good vocal blend whereas the singers in the Kontarsky performance are as solid as a rock. Thus I find myself torn between the two performances, and to be honest Der Prinz von Homburg is the kind of music where having firm voices is important, therefore I must come down in favor of the Kontarsky recording over this one, as much as I like Meister’s pacing and shaping of the score.

So that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 12, Nos. 3/4, 1979

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