Henze's Das verratene Meer
Josh Lovell (Noboru) in Vienna State Opera's Das verratene Meer. Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

The most prolific operatic composer of the postwar period, Hans Werner Henze’s contribution to the music theatre canon includes some 30 works encompassing a wide variety of musical styles and literary topics. His 1990 opera Das verattene Meer is based on Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Henze’s grippingly beautiful score charts the fate of a young widow, Fusako, who falls in love with a naval officer, Ryuji. Their story is enmeshed with that of her 13-year-old son, Noboru, who belongs to an occult teenage gang who sadistically murder the seaman. Vienna State Opera premiered their new production of Das verratene Meer as a live streamed event on Dec. 14th.

The meeting of minds between Henze and Mishimi is an unlikely one: a life-long German leftist revolutionary with that of a Japanese fascist who publicly committed suicide by Seppuku in 1970. But their similarities are patent: both had brutal authoritative fathers, both were traumatized by the Second World War, both were openly gay and abhorred bourgeois life. Henze’s expressionistic rendering of Mishima’s tale is strongly influenced by the 2nd Viennese School. At the same time, a range of post-war idioms come into play: musique concrète, pre-recorded sounds of harbour noises, seagull cries, a ship’s bell, construction noises, the evocation of heavy machinery, unusual percussion instruments (7 players) including the Japanese tom-tom and the whip. Obsessive ostinato patterns become dominant, building an acute level of angst. 

(L-r): Vera-Lotte Boecker (Fusako), Bo Skovhus (Ryuji) and Josh Lovell (Noboru) in Vienna State Opera’s Das verratene Meer. Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Throughout the two acts, each under an hour, Australian conductor Simone Young rivets the audience’s attention even via live streaming from a completely empty Vienna State Opera. The advantage among the many disadvantages of this Corona-era ersatz to live opera is that a conductor needn’t worry too much about covering singers whose voices are captured on separate microphones. Thus Young takes expert control of Henze’s vast orchestration of late Romantic proportions, unleashing its full potential for power and depth. But there are also extended sections where she reduces the Vienna State Opera Orchestra to shimmering pianissimi that simmer over the ebullient tonalities beneath. 

Noboru (the first name of novelist Mishima’s father) is a coldly controlled figure, elegantly and movingly sung here by Canadian tenor Josh Lovell. Currently in his second season as an ensemble member at Vienna State Opera, this hugely talented young artist has, or is scheduled to, appear with the company as Lysander in Irina Brook’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lurcanio in David McVicar’s staging of Ariodante, Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, and Ernesto in Don Pasquale—hopefully live—but even via streaming, not one of his performances should be missed!

Henze’s lyrical genius emerges especially in the role of Fusako, brilliantly sung by Vera-Lotte Boecker, whose previous appearances in Henze operas include his The Bassarids at Salzburg (2018) and Der Prinz von Homburg at Staatsoper Stuttgart (2019). The part of Fusako bears enough resemblance to Lulu that one can easily imagine Boecker, with her agility and grace, as Berg’s tragic femme fatale.  

(L-r): Josh Lovell (Noboru), Vera-Lotte Boecker (Fusako) and Bo Skovhus (Ryuji) in Vienna State Opera’s Das verratene Meer. Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Bo Skovhus plays the once intrepid seafarer turned family man with all the subtlety and engagement he is renowned for. He is alarmingly naïve and oblivious to Noboru’s sense of betrayal and subsequent radicalization. Skovhus is at his best in Ryuji’s final elegiac song of the sailor, before he meets his gruesome fate.

Anna Viebrock’s uniformly gray, brutalist set and her meticulous sense of detail complement the stark directing of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. Her costumes are the only relief from these minimalist strictures, offering moments of colour and sparkle. Particularly astute are those she designed for each appearance of Noboru’s menacing gang, who go from being schoolboys in shorts to corporate murderers in suits. They are all excellently sung, with a special mention for their leader, the lush-voiced American bass-baritone Erik Van Heyningen, as well as an outstanding performance by Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim.

Das verratene Meer will be performed in front of a live audience at Vienna State Opera on Sept. 19, 23, and 27, 2021.

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