Henze: Der Prinz von Homburg

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: Der Prinz von Homburg
PERFORMER: François Le Roux, William Cochran, Helga Dernesch; Bavarian State Opera Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch; dir. Nikolaus Lehnhoff (Munich, 1994)
In 1960 both Britten (with A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Henze (with Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 masterpiece The Prince of Homburg) pulled off improbable successes with operas based on plays so great in themselves they seemed not to need music. Homburg (the baritone François Le Roux) is part Hamlet fantasist, part fiery military commander. He wins a major battle, but by disobeying orders – orders that he only half heard in the distraction of his love for the Princess Natalie (soprano Marianne Häggander). He is sentenced to death and, despite universal pleas for clemency, his ruler, the Elector of Brandenburg (tenor William Cochran), will only spare him once he has acknowledged the justice of the verdict against him.


The play’s crucial alternation of scenes of fantasy and reality is well realised by Ingeborg Bachmann’s cunning libretto. Henze’s orchestral texture is by turns luminous and severe, while his handling of voice and text attains a glorious virtuosity in the Act I, Scene 2 presentation of Homburg’s and Natalie’s hopes alongside the Elector’s battle orders. The staging (seen in London in 1996, although less compulsively than here) is sparse and colourful in its sharp reds, blues and blacks, presenting just an angled wall with many doors and a single long table to show both meeting places and heights above the battlefield. Henze’s autobiography specifically praises this production and its musical achievement. Understandably so; here is a tight, professional ensemble at work, smoothly and unobtrusively filmed. Recommended – but Arthaus’s booklets remain poor and its lack of meaty support items bewildering. Mike Ashman