Hans Werner Henze conceived of L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe as his farewell to the stage although, as it turned out, it wasn’t. It’s a combination of Arabian Nights type themes crossed with elements from German folklore not unlike Die Zauberflöte, which is an obvious infuence. So obvious, in fact, that in the scene where Kasim rescues his beloved she is given a line straight out of Schikaneder. For the 2003 world premiere in the Kleinesfestspielhaus in Salzburg, director Dieter Dorn and designer Jürgen Rose chose a simple stage concept. The action is encircled by an arch, at the apex of which is a tower room. The old man, the ruler of the principality, inhabits the room. The action mostly takes place in brightly coloured scenes under the arch.
The story is quite basic. An old man is dying and can only be revived if someone can retrieve the golden hoopoo that used to visit him but has withdrawn in rage at his attempts to catch it. His three sons are sent on the quest which they must accomplish “at any price, even their own lives”, a phrase that recurs rather a lot. The two elder sons; Gharib and Adschib, are worthless skivers but the youngest, Kasim, is your classic fairy tale prince; if a bit dim even by princely standards. He is aided by a rather spectacular demon and he duly finds the hoopoo and “rescues” the princess Badi at el-Hosn wal Dschamal. Returning with the princess, the hoopoo and a mysterious box, Kasim meets his brothers. They throw Kasim and the princess down a well and return to their homeland in triumph with the hoopoo claiming that Kasim has been killed by a monster. The demon rescues Kasim and Badi etc and they return home to confront the brothers who are sentenced to death by their father but are reprieved by Kasim on condition they spend the rest of their lives maintaining the municipal sewers. Everyone else lives happily ever after.
It’s quite a peculiar libretto (by Henze himself). Besides the straightforward narrative there are sundry encounters with wonderful, magical and dangerous elements. Sometimes the libretto seems just plain weird as when the old man warns Kasim to beware, inter alia, of Trappists. Then there are scenes that are very touching like the initial encounter between Kasim and Badi etc and an extended trio where the demon is told about the wonderful apples that grow in Kasim’s homeland which the demon has never tasted in his cold and barren homeland.
Musically it is totally Henze. The singers are combined with an enormous orchestra plus taped effects. It ought to sound cluttered but it never does. Rather it has a crystalline, almost chamber music like, clarity. There are orchestral passages of great beauty, especially at the very end. The vocal line ranges from speech, through sprechstimme to full on singing ranging from rigidly serial to quite lyrical. The voice types are carefully chosen to suit the roles. The older brothers are played by a bass baritone (Anton Schäringer) and a counter tenor (Axel Köhler). The counter tenor part seems to be deliberately annoying as only a counter tenor can be.
By contrast the good guys are sung more lyrically notably by Matthias Goerne as Kasim and Laura Aikin as Badi etc who are both quite superb. The demon is John Mark Ainsley and he’s at least as good. In fact in many ways he’s the star of the show dramatically and vocally. There’s solid singing too from Alfred Muff as the old man, Günter Missenhardt as the Sarastro substitute, Dijab, and Hanna Schwarz in a trouser role cameo as the prince Malik. Markus Stenz directs with an augmented Wiener Philharmoniker and a lot of tape. The sounds they make range from very exciting to achingly beautiful. It’s all very well done.
Brian Large directed for video and takes a straightforward enough approach. Odd angles are kept to a minimum and the balance of close up and longer shot is reasonable and not distracting. The picture is about as good as it gets on DVD. The DTS 5.1 and LPCM stereo soundtracks are both quite spectacular in their precise positioning of sounds. The Dolby surround track isn’t quite so good. There are English, French and German subtitles. There are no extras on the disk and documentation is restricted to a track listing and a short essay by a German musicologist of the sort one used to hear on BBC Radio 3.