Hans Werner Henze: The Sea Betrayed (Capriccio)

I was completely absorbed by this opera as a sound production — maybe one day I’ll get to see the whole show

Artillery Row


There is an unwritten law in music that composers are left unperformed for ten years after they die. The muting is certainly true of Henze, who died in 2012 and has hardly been heard since. A Vienna Opera staging of his 1990 opera, based on Yukio Mishima’s powerful novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, was intended to break the silence last year, only to be disrupted by Covid-19 closure. Considerable revision and imagination had gone into the Vienna production as the opera had flopped at its 1990 Berlin premiere.

It’s an immersive acoustic picture, driven with tight dramatic shifts

Henze and Mishima had much in common — both were raised under fascism. Mishima remained a far-right agitator, committing hara-kiri in 1970 in protest against the state of post-war Japan. Henze joined the far-left, quit Germany, embraced Fidel Castro and proclaimed gay liberation. His personal maritime yearnings found expression in a devotion to Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival. The orchestral opening of The Sea Beyond could almost be mistaken for Peter Grimes, were it not for undercurrents of Alban Berg. These, however, are just ingredients. The sound tapestry that emerges is richly Henze’s own, rooted in Germany’s twentieth-century see-saw between tonality and atonality.

The plot has something of Madam Butterfly, except all the characters are Japanese. Tsukazaki is a ship’s captain who falls in love with a rich, young war widow, Fusako. Her son, Noboru, aged 13, opposes the match. He has a gang. This cannot end well.

The cast recording is exceptional. Bo Skovhus is the skipper, Vera-Lotte Boecker the widow, Josh Lovell the insufferable kid. The Vienna Philharmonic emit plucking, tutting, plangent sounds, the likes of which they never learned at the Musikverein. It’s an immersive acoustic picture, driven with tight dramatic shifts by the imposing Simone Young. I was completely absorbed by the opera as a sound production. Some day, maybe, I’ll get to see the whole show.

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