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Hans Werner Henze - Der Prinz von Homburg
(Heinrich von Kleist/Ingeborg Bachmann)

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg: Francois Le Roux
Friedrich Wilhelm Kurfürst von Brandenburg: William Cochran
Kurfürstin: Helga Dernesch
Prinzessin Natalie: Marie Anne Häggander
Graf Hohenzollern: Claes-Hakon Ahnsjö
Feldmarschall Dörfling: Günther Nöcker
Bayerische Staatsoper & Bayersiches Staatsorchester/Wolfgang Sawallisch
Stage Director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Stage & Costume Design: Gottfried Pilz
Staged recording Munich 1994

Arthaus 100 164 [16:9 105 mins]

At first viewing this was not easy to grasp, musically or as presented by Pilz & Lenhoff, but returning to the DVD after enjoying and reviewing Henze's autobiographical Memoirs of an Outsider our reaction was far more positive.

Hans Werner Henze (b.1926 - d. December 2012) was a leading operatic composer of his time and 'internationally the only operatic composer producing comparable output and quality was Benjamin Britten' (Moritz Held), who goes on to explain how the music of this opera 'is more than a synthesis of Schönberg and Stravinsky'.

Der Prinz von Homburg (1960) was apparently composed at great speed, some sections in 'automatic writing' which even embraced passages lifted from Le baiser de la fée - probably unconsciously by the composer, but readily recognisable! How various are composers' methods of creation!

The theme is the downfall and eventual rehabilitation of a confused Prussian dreamer, who ignores express instructions, attacks and wins a famous victory by (rather akin to Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye), earning himself thereby a court martial and death sentence. The crux is a philosophical debate about heart and mind, and obedience to paramount authority.

It is staged on a simple but striking permanent set, predominantly blue, no more than a row of doors and a few moveable plain refectory tables which serve for all the action - but it is lit brilliantly and tellingly filmed. There are no identifiable locations to help us, but it encourages us to work upon our imaginations, whilst concentrating attention upon the Prince and those who seek to support and save him.

Francoix le Roux is outstanding vocally and in his acting as Friedrich, who at the end holds the moral upper ground. At first he is depicted as sleepwalking and absent minded, but develops strength and clarity as the action proceeds to a surprise ending. He spurns the easy option of procuring a pardon by questioning the verdict. Instead he accepts the army's legal right to condem him with the resulting consequence, his own death sentence, thereby preserving an authoritarian status quo. In the other key roles of the Prince's putative family, the difficult vocal lines are negotiated confidently by William Cochran, Helga Dernesch and Marie Anne Häggander, and by Claes-Hakon Ahnsjö as the best friend who tries to persuade Friedrich to save himself.

It is clearly sub-titled in language of choice, and the recording, in Henze's later version of 1992, with reduced orchestral brass, is well balanced. Wolfgang Sawallisch is seen conducting the excellent Bayersiches Staatsorchester only during the interlude before the last scene.

Der Prinz von Homburg is a key work in German opera, alongside Zimmerman's Die Soldaten [Arthaus Musik 100 270], which I have recommended in The Opera Critic. For collectors who like to work a little for their pleasure and satisfaction this is a rewarding DVD, and you might say that it is twice as good value because it does not reveal all its secrets at first viewing? Der Prinz von Homburg is available from Amazon Germany but apparently not at present from Amazon France, UK or USA.


© Peter Grahame Woolf