Hans Werner Henze's love for Italy,
and 'Gisella!' in Palermo,
by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Hans Werner Henze's Gisela! Oder Die merk- und denkwürdigen Wege des Glücks ('Gisela! Or the strange and memorable routes to happiness') inaugurated the 2015 opera, ballet and concert season of Palermo's Teatro Massimo on 21 January 2015. Henze (1926-2012) needs no introduction; he is the most celebrated and the most performed composer of the second part of the twentieth century. Born in Westphalia, he reached Italy in his mid-twenties and fell in love with the country: after a few years shared between Ischia Island and Naples, he settled in Marino, in the hilly countryside near Rome. His artistic life can be divided into three parts. In the first, he brought modern music (including the twelve note row style) to large audiences and based his work on well known literature; in the second, he opted for epic works with strong political connotations; in the third, his main theme was the search for Utopia. Within this third phase, there is Gisela!, an opera he composed at the age of eighty-four, to be especially performed and seen by adolescents.
Gisela! was first performed in the Maschinenhalle of Gladbeck, Germany, on 25 September 2010 as part of the Ruhrtriennale music and arts festival by the contemporary music ensemble in collaboration with local youth groups and university students. It was a major success. It soon landed in Dresden Semperoper where it is a repertory staple. The original commission was to continue the direction of Henze's Pollicino ('Growing Up', 30 October 2010). Gisela!'s target performers are teenagers and young singers, although the score is demanding for orchestra, chorus and soloists. While at Ruhrtriennale, the performers were mostly in their teens, in Dresden, and elsewhere in Germany, they are professional singers. In Palermo, two of the three protagonists were in their late twenties, but one (the baritone) in his fifties (though made up to look like a youngster).
Gisela! was Hans Werner Henze's last opera. It is a parable to Henze's own life, namely of a person from the north of Germany falling in love with Italy. The two acts tell the story of a young student's love triangle, the choice Gisela has to make between her German boyfriend and the Italian alternative, as well as the difficulty of the Italian Gennaro to come to terms with life in northern Germany. It is interesting that Gisela's nightmares are based on Bach's music, eerily transformed. Gennaro chooses to express himself by singing 'Aggio Saputo', a Neapolitan song. The first act (forty minutes) develops in Naples; The thirty minute second act in Oberhausen. The final scene is the explosion of Mount Vesuvius to celebrate the everlasting love between Gisela and Gennaro.
Henze provides a delightful score: a tapestry of quotations (not only Bach and Neapolitan songs, but Hindemith, Stravinsky, many other important twentieth century composers, jazz, afro-Cuban rhythms and even Scarlatti and Pergolesi). The quotations are so skillfully intertwined that only specialists can catch them. The tapestry is light and fascinating. The vocal part follows canonic operatic conventions such as recitatives and arias, duets, trios, sextets, ensembles and is, of course, to fit young voices like an eighteenth century light opera.
The orchestra and chorus, with young conductor Constantin Trinks, render the score to perfection. The three main singers (Vanessa Goikoetxea, Roberto De Biasio and Lucio Gallo) handle their roles very well in a performance where, along with other singers in less important roles, there are actors and mimes from the stage theatre Compagnia Sud Costa Occidentale, all directed by Emma Dante with elegance, tact and affection.
Copyright © 5 February 2015 Giuseppe Pennisi,