Henze flirts with melody in opera `English Cat'

Hans Werner Henze's newest opera, ``The English Cat,'' received its New York premi`ere eight months after its unveiling in the United States last summer in Santa Fe. As seen on stage at the Manhattan School of Music recently, it proved to be something of a cross between ``Puss in Boots'' in narrative style, and Stravinsky's ``The Rake's Progress'' in its almost sinister musical tone. Mr. Henze, always an unusually adept orchestrator, has broken away from his frankly alienational period of music-creating. He now flirts with melody, structure, and tone painting.

He has not, however, eschewed his apparently radical political ideals. He has returned to collaborating with British playwright Edward Bond, the librettist of his ambitious yet politically doctrinaire opera ``We Come to the River,'' which the Santa Fe Opera mounted handsomely in 1984.

These cats are not out of T. S. Eliot's ``Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,'' but rather out of some post-``Animal Farm'' age, in which a cultivated feline social order masquerades as British gentry, yet masks the devious, cruel self-absorption of what Bond and Henze view as feline/human characteristics. The allegory is nasty, the message rather dated, and Bond's libretto only marginally interesting in its use of words and wit.

So it is to Henze's music that one must turn, and, as is so often the case in opera, the score triumphs over the text. There is too much music, in truth, too little self-editing, but that has often been a problem for Henze. Nevertheless, what is good about the score is engrossing. He keeps the sinister undercurrent alive very subtly throughout the opera, so that at the savage denouement, one is prepared for the sudden turns and twists in plot. Henze has constantly reminded us in his music that things are never what they appear.

Predictably, he uses his orchestra evocatively as a richly-hued palette. His fragmentational style works ideally in a score that evokes a certain turn-of-the-century English period, that incorporates touches of dance tunes, pastorales, clair de lunes, and so forth.

The Manhattan School production was superbly designed by Maxine Willi Klein, with Steven Rubin's Santa Fe production costumes. Lou Galterio's stage direction proved rather static and did little to help reflect the double-edged irony heard in the score. And David Gilbert's conducting of the remarkable music school orchestra was proficient rather than dramatic and truly communicative.

This is clearly a work that should be performed again in the US, preferably by a major company with the resources to really do it justice. It holds the stage well as a macabre fantasy morality play, and the best of the score would be a pleasant surprise to those who feel Henze only writes aleatory noise.

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