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Bassarids, Thelocked

  • Andrew Clements

Opera seria with intermezzo in one act (four movements) by Hans Werner Henze to a libretto by W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden and Chester Kallman after EuripidesThe Bacchae; Salzburg, Grosses Festspielhaus, 6 August 1966.

Dionysus who also sings: A Voice, A Stranger


Pentheus King of Thebes


Cadmus his grandfather, founder of Thebes


Tiresias an old blind prophet


Captain of the Royal Guard


Agave Cadmus’s daughter and mother of Pentheus


Autonoe her sister


Beroe an old slave, once nurse to the deceased Semele


Young woman slave in Agave’s household


Child her daughter


Bassarids, Theban citizens, guards and servants

Setting The Royal Palace, Thebes, and Mount Cytheron, in antiquity

Henze’s second collaboration with Auden and Kallman, after the successful première of Elegy for Young Lovers, was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. The libretto was prepared in 1963, but Henze did not begin work on the score until more than a year later, after he had completed Der junge Lord. The first performance (in German) was conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi with a cast led by Ingeborg Hallstein, Kerstin Meyer, Vera Little, Loren Driscoll, Helmut Melchert, Kostas Paskalis, William Dooley and Peter Lagger; the première of the original English-language version took place at Santa Fe in 1967, conducted by the composer. In 1974 it was staged by the ENO at the London Coliseum, with a cast that included Josephine Barstow, Katherine Pring, Anne Collins, Gregory Dempsey, Kenneth Woollam, Norman Welsby and Tom McDonnell; Henze conducted and directed the performances. A concert performance at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1986, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, formed the basis of a subsequent commercial recording (1991), in which the intermezzo in the third movement was omitted (a cut approved by the composer).


First movement The courtyard of the Royal Palace

Cadmus, founder of Thebes, has abdicated in favour of his grandson Pentheus. The citizens of Thebes gather to sing a hymn in praise of their new king, but Pentheus is in retreat, praying and fasting; he plans to convert his people gradually to a rational monotheism. Next to the palace is the grave of Semele, a daughter of Cadmus, who, according to legend, had borne a son by Zeus: Dionysus. An offstage Voice interrupts the hymn, proclaiming ‘Ayayalya, the God Dionysus has entered Boeotia!’, and the brass fanfares that underpinned the choral celebration give way to lyrical lines of flute and strings, while the chorus takes up the melismatic chant as, transformed into Bassarids, they follow the Voice to Mount Cytheron. Cadmus, Beroe, Agave and Tiresias discuss the Dionysian cult. Cadmus is fearful, Tiresias suspicious, Beroe clings to the old religion; only Agave welcomes the new faith.

The Bassarids’ hymn continues in the background. Autonoe arrives as Agave praises the handsome Captain of the Guard, who reads a proclamation from Pentheus forbidding his people to believe that Dionysus is the son of Semele and Zeus. Pentheus himself reinforces his command by extinguishing the flame on Semele’s grave, threatening death to anyone who relights it. Cadmus is horrified. Agave and Autonoe pledge their loyalty to Pentheus, but the offstage voice of Dionysus interrupts them with a seductive serenade, urging them to Mount Cytheron, to the land of eternal happiness. The sisters follow, as if hypnotized.

Second movement

Despite Cadmus’s warnings, Pentheus sends his guards to imprison all those who celebrated the festival of the Bassarids. As the Bassarids’ chorus is heard again, Pentheus confesses in a long aria to Beroe his fear of the Dionysian cult, and swears to abstain ‘from wine, from meats, and from woman’s bed’; she prays that the new king will be protected. Entranced detainees from Mount Cytheron are brought before Pentheus; they include his mother Agave, her sister Autonoe, Tiresias and a stranger suspected of being a Dionysian priest. Pentheus attempts to wake his mother, but she can only sing an aria describing the delights of Cytheron. He places her and Autonoe under house arrest, and orders the destruction of Tiresias’s house. Beroe has recognized the stranger as Dionysus; when Pentheus threatens him with torture, he responds with an aria that describes Dionysus’s voyage to Naxos.

Third movement

The Bassarids’ hymn continues. As the stranger is tortured Thebes is struck by an earthquake; the prisoners escape and rush off to Mount Cytheron. The stranger offers Pentheus a vision in a mirror of the feast of the Bassarids.

In an intermezzo Pentheus is shown a rococo enactment of the Judgement of Calliope, in effect his own repressed sexual fantasies: Agave and Autonoe appear as Aphrodite and Persephone in erotic play with the Captain of the Guard as Adonis. The scene is accompanied by onstage mandolins and guitar, and the music itself is neo-classical, with recitative, arias, duets and a final quartet.

Pentheus is appalled by what has been brought from his own subconscious; the stranger suggests he disguise himself as a woman and follow him to Mount Cytheron. Beroe and Cadmus await Pentheus’s return. On the mountain Pentheus hides to watch his people, transformed into Bassarids and Maenads. The voice of Dionysus tells them there is a spy among them; led by Agave, who fails to recognize her son’s pleas, the Bassarids kill Pentheus.

Fourth movement

While Cadmus and Beroe keep watch at dawn, a triumphant procession returns to Thebes. Agave displays the head of her son; still entranced, she believes she has killed a lion. Questioned by Cadmus, she comes gradually to her senses, and identifies the stranger as perpetrator of the murder. He admits he is Dionysus; he exiles the remainder of the Theban royal family and orders the burning of their palace. Among the flames he summons his mother Semele from her grave and commits her to Mount Olympus as the goddess Thyone. When the flames subside Semele’s grave is bedecked in vines, and adorned with statues of Dionysus and Thyone. In the morning sunshine, the people kneel to worship their new gods.

When Auden and Kallman took on the commission they specified that Henze listen to Götterdämmerung before composing the music. Henze in turn requested a libretto shaped into the four-movement plan of a symphony, and the music of The Bassarids represents a conscious attempt to come to terms with the post-Wagnerian tradition, continued through Mahler and Schoenberg. Though traditional operatic forms, arias and ensembles are embedded in the structure, each of the four movements has a symphonic archetype: the first is a sonata form in which the hard-edged Pentheus material and the more sensuous music for the Bassarids provide the two subject groups; the second is a scherzo made from a sequence of dances; the third a slow movement interrupted by the intermezzo and culminating in the music of the hunt for Pentheus; the fourth is founded on a 43-note theme that flows into a final passacaglia.