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THEATRE REVIEW: 'Elegy For Young Lovers' by Deborah Grayson

My first memory of Fiona Shaw is as the repressed school ma'am lusting after Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Little Lady, a performance that at 3 I found deeply disturbing. There is an element of this nervous sexuality in her production of Elegy for Young Lovers, the fourth co-production between the ENO and Young Vic following Lost Highway, Punch and Judy and After Dido, which is showing at the theatre until the end of next week.

The opera tells the story of the eminent, aging poet Gregor Mittenhofer, who has come to an Alpine village inn to take inspiration from the visions of a mad woman. In his entourage are his obsessive patroness Countess Carolina, younger lover Elisabeth, overzealous physician Dr Reischmann, and god son Toni Reischmann, who appears in the first act and promptly falls in love with Elisabeth. Elisabeth spends Act II torn apart by her feelings for Toni, her attachment to the old poet, and her feelings of guilt and whorishness for wanting both of them. Gregor – clearly not the kindest of men from his rages in Act I – finally reveals the true extent of his malevolence, allowing Elisabeth to choose Toni, blessing their relationship, and then omitting to tell the mountain guide he's sent them up the Hammelhorn when a sudden blizzard sets in, so they die, unsearched for, on the mountainside. The opera ends with Gregor in Vienna reciting his latest poem, Elegy for Young Lovers, which is dedicated to their memory.

The first act is certainly the weakest, though the fault lies mostly in the piece rather than the production. Hilda's mad visions have little resonance when our understanding of the characters is so shallow, and while top sop Jennifer Rhys-Davies shines vocally and dramatically, the setting of her words renders them largely incomprehensible. Act II is the most moving and believable as Elisabeth struggles against the psychological manipulations of everyone around her. Unusually for opera, which often has you to believe that tenor A is about to leave soprano B for mezzo C when B is a sylph-like beauty and C is a 20 stone warbling hippo, I really did buy her passionate desire for both men. Carolina takes two acts to get into her stride, before revealing her masochistic obsession with the poet in some delightful singing as she trails her fingers crotch-wards through his bath water. Steven Page as Gregor carries the show with his extravagant energy, and there are some beautiful moments, dramatically and musically, as the young lovers succumb to the cold. But I was never totally absorbed or transported, and couldn't help feeling a little that Henze's opera might have remained obscure for a reason.

The real star of the show is Tom Pye's set, with tables and chairs frosting over, a grandfather clock made of ice melting onstage, and the stage literally cracking open beneath the feet of the protagonists as the thin veneer of social nicety breaks apart. The liberal use of dry ice is mostly well judged, only overstepping the mark in the final act as Gregor sits in his steaming bath haloed by red underlighting and looking a little bit too much like the Commendatore ordering Don G down to hell to be taken seriously. The innovative use of projections gives depth and scope, and helps to pointer the more hard of hearing through the narrative.

The libretto is by Chester Kallman and W.H. Auden, and as with another Auden opera, The Rake’s Progress, the text mixes drawing room wit and nonsense with pithy couplets about the nature of art and god. But Henze never quite achieves Stravinsky's lightness of touch, or the musical unity to guide the listener through the score. Although it becomes far less fragmentary after the first act, and there are some moments of real beauty later on, particularly during the death scene, I certainly didn't come out humming any tunes. Approached as an interesting, unknown piece of the repertoire, well staged and performed, it makes for a good night out. But for all that the ENO's collaboration with the Young Vic is intended to attract a different demographic, I was still probably the youngest in the room by a couple of decades. Opera will need to get funkier than Auden if it's serious about attracting a new sort of audience.

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