Henze’s Prinz von Homburg in Stuttgart

Hans Werner Henze’s Prinz von Homburg is a deeply affecting opera drawn, but distanced, from Kleist’s drama of the same name. He and his librettist Ingeborg Bachmann were concerned to use the early 19th century material on militarism, disobedience and freedom to confront the predicament of Germany in the post-Nazi period. In yearning for a new order which fosters freedom and self-expression, the eponymous Prince lives half in a dream world, much removed from the reality of the highly regulated society which renounces his ideals. Paradoxically, the act of military disobedience leading to his condemnation and death is one which secures victory for that society; paradoxically also he rejects the offer of release from his sentence because that would involve recognising the unjustness of the decision and his own innocence.

Henze’s music is gripping throughout as it moves from the lyricism of the Prince’s dreams and the awareness of his love for Natalie through the discordant, driving rhythms of military order to the powerful, almost Verdian, melodic craving for freedom.  The performance in Stuttgart was in the masterly (sorry!) hands of Cornelius Meister. His total command of the score might have been the most impressive contribution to the evening, but he was supported by a superb cast of actor-singers, notably British baritone Robin Adams in the title role, Vera-Litte Böcker as his lover Natalie, Stefan Margita as his adversary the Elector of Brandenburg and (amazingly still a member of the Studio ensemble) Moritz Kallenberg as his friend Hohenzollern.

What then of the production? Stephan Kimmig, better known for his work in the straight theatre in Germany, offered a spare and unrelentingly grim vision of the piece on a predominantly bare stage. The thrust of the most important themes of the opera came across coherently: the Prince’s uncomprehending resistance to authority; the unreasoning adherence to rules of the Elector; the unachievable goals of freedom and justice. And there were some marvellous visual images, for example, the Prince seeking self-awareness in a corridor of mirrors and, as he approaches death, groping across the front of the stage while blindfolded and separated from the arena of his endeavours by the theatre curtain.

While the “big things” of Kimmig production were thus powerful and convincing, the same cannot be said of the “little things”, the subsidiary aspects which were irritatingly distracting because they required thought as to their symbolic significance. The principal characters wore track suits and, in between utterances, engaged in physical jerks – to achieve self-expression?  At the beginning and end there was a high step-ladder on the stage – a means of the hero reaching upwards to achieve his ideals in death? While the Prince communicates his predicament to the Elector’s wife, she while listening applies cream to her bare legs – I can think of no possible explanation for this episode.

Yes, there were niggling doubts but if, as was the case, one left the performance having been gripped and enthralled by what one saw and heard, this was due to the fearless exposition by Henze and Bachmann of the dilemmas of modern German society, his rich, powerful, score and the total commitment and conviction of the performers.