Phaedra, Op.93 – Dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra (July – 12 August 1975, Britten aged 61)
Dedication for Janet Baker
Text Robert Lowell, after Phèdre by Jean Racine
Three clips are set out below, taken from the premiere recording of Phaedra, sung by Dame Janet Baker with Steuart Bedford conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.
In May, in brilliant Athens
Oh Gods of wrath
My time’s too short, your highness
Background and Critical Reception
Even in the final years of his life, with his physical health dwindling, Britten retained a sharp musical mind that was keenly applied to new compositions.
During the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival he was captivated by Janet Baker, the mezzo-soprano with whom he had recently been working in the English Opera Group, as she sang the great Berlioz song cycle Les nuits d’été. Britten resolved to write a piece for her, and turned to a story for which he had originally planned a male lead.
This was the tragic tale of Phaedra, married to Theseus. She falls in love with his son from a previous marriage, Hippolytus, and when she believes her husband to have been killed in battle she attempts to seduce him. She fails, but her husband returns unexpectedly – and she alleges that Hippolytus has tried to take advantage of her. Theseus places him under a curse and he dies, but Phaedra’s conscience gets the better of her, and she confesses to her husband before poisoning herself to death.
Britten chose to interpret the tragedy not in opera form but in a five part, single movement cantata, with three arias and two recitatives. This was seen as homage to Handel, who would write works in such a structure – and the use of a harpsichord heightened the parallels with the Baroque period. Yet Britten also included a large amount of percussion to tell the story, which he used descriptively along with the string writing.
Phaedra had initially been suggested to Britten as long ago as the mid-1940s, as a possible sequel to The Rape of Lucretia, yet he shunned that idea in favour of Albert Herring. The discovery of a new translation from Robert Lowell drew him back to the story, helped by the fact that Baker was now singing the part of Lucretia.
Michael Oliver captures Phaedra‘s essence, describing it as ‘a masterly score with a pervasive, motto phrase echoing through it. Phaedra has an operatic amplitude of gesture, from the declamatory first aria, culminating in the heroine’s confession of her incestuous love for her stepson, to the huge phrase, tragic and even proud, in which she confesses to her husband. Again there is no hint of a fatally ill composer husbanding his resources, rather of one eagerly responding to new stimuli: the sequences of opaque ten-part string chords in the second aria, clearing each time to a poignant recollection, are a new sound in Britten’s music. So is the remarkable coda, in which fleeting recollections of Phaedra’s passion, madness and death fade out over a long-held octave C in the basses.’
Once heard, Phaedra is not easily forgotten. Its coruscating opening melody is an immediate indication of the tragedies at hand, and it is one of those unwieldy melodies that covers a huge range but somehow sticks in the mind, especially when hammered home as remorselessly as it is here. That is even before the contribution of the singer, who dominates with increasingly tragic lines that grow in dramatic power as the cantata progresses.
Britten finds a searing intensity through the vocal, which makes an incredibly powerful impact, aided by the probing melody from the first violins, not to mention the taut percussion, which are hit with harder sticks, and the sparse textures where the harpsichord provides a ghoulish presence. It is in a sense a reprisal of the intensity of The Rape of Lucretia, but adds the sparse scoring of late-period Britten, plus his greater economy of musical expression, means the whole story is packed into just a quarter of an hour, with not a single note going to waste.
Some of the word painting here is frankly scary. Nothing for me can top the rattling of the harpsichord as Phaedra sings of how “The very dust rises to disabuse my husband – to defame me and accuse!” The textures Britten uses here are remarkably similar to those used in horror films. And then the adagio, with which the cantata finishes, is tragedy itself, the strings reaching for the heights before sinking to the depths, slumping as the heroine herself does under the poison.
Phaedra is a powerful, distilled response to a tragic plot, Britten operating with an almost feverish level of intensity and making me, at least, wish that he had published even more music for female voice. This piece, though, is an apt signing-off in a vocal canon of almost unremitting quality.
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Decca)
Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Collins Classics)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Endymion Ensemble / John Whitfield (EMI)
Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (mezzo-soprano), Halle Orchestra / Kent Nagano (Erato)
Interpretations of Phaedra are all or nothing – and to be honest all of the ones I have heard fall into the former category. Nobody wanting a recording of the piece could be without Dame Janet Baker’s first recording, however, a rendition of frightening power and scabrous intensity.
Sarah Connolly has the backing of what sounds like a slightly bigger orchestra, in a version that brings home its full power with the assistance of superb digital Chandos sound. Among the more recent recordings is the very fulsome voice of Jean Rigby, accompanied by the edgy tones of the Nash Ensemble.
Meanwhile Ann Murray, Felicity Lott and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson are all formidable presences, dominating proceedings, though in the latter I found the orchestral contribution rather less on the edge.
The attached playlist offers the versions from Janet Baker, Ann Murray, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and an extra version from Jennifer Larmore.
Also written in 1975: Elliott Carter – A Mirror on Which to Dwell
Next up: String Quartet no.3, Op.94