Not long after he began his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert mentioned the idea of presenting a staged performance of Hans Werner Henze's 1966 opera The Bassarids, a major work of postwar music theater. Perhaps such an event will still come to pass; a program at the Philharmonic this week, containing an orchestral suite from the opera, certainly whets the appetite. The Bassarids, with its Auden-Kallman libretto and its darkly opulent, post-Bergian score, has long seemed a natural for the Met, but, as Peter G. Davis wrote in the Times on Sunday, for one reason or another it has never happened. Christoph von Dohnányi, who led the premiere of The Bassarids back in 1966 and remains remarkably energetic on the podium nearly fifty years later, is conducting the Philharmonic performances, the first of which took place last night. The concert suite, which Henze assembled in 2004, is drawn largely from the "third movement," the Adagio, of the symphonically structured score; it ends with the dismemberment of Pentheus by the Maenads. Henze has done a marvelous job of recasting vocal lines as instrumental solos; especially wrenching are the cello lines representing Pentheus's dying words. Avery Fisher Hall fell silent as Carter Brey gave a strikingly vocal, expressive account of that solo. Dohnányi led with absolute authority, and returned after intermission with a Schubert Ninth that began somewhat placidly and built momentum as it went along, ending in a display of furiously disciplined dynamism. All told, a superb program, very much worth seeing.
Photo: Franco Pomponi as Pentheus, Châtelet, 2005.