Das verratene Meer, Opera by Hans Werner Henze
A German composer brings a near-dystopian post-WWII Japanese novel to the opera stage – it almost sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. Quite the contrary! Hans Werner Henze takes the profound, touching, and shocking novel ‘The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea’ by provocative Japanese writer Yukio Mishima and turns it into Das verratene Meer, a standout modern opera with unique tonal and topical qualities. Premiering on 5 May 1990 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the work has gone around the world and left audiences on several continents impressed and ever so slightly disturbed, as both the source material and its musical interpretation would presuppose. Henze’s Das verratene Meer (German for ‘The Betrayed Sea’) now washes over the stage of the Vienna State Opera.
The libretto, courtesy of Hans-Ulrich Treichel, stays true to the Japanese novel’s plot. It focuses on the teenage boy Noboru who is negotiating his place in afterwar Japan and building up his value system, where honour and masculinity play a central role. His mother is Fusako, a young and attractive widow who runs a high-end fashion boutique in Yokohama. A chance encounter with the sailor Ryuji, the second mate of a commercial liner, quickly turns into a romance that leaves Noboru conflicted. At first, he admires Ryuji and his honourable dedication to the sea; as the love between his mother and the sailor grows and heads towards marriage, however, the teenager quickly loses respect for his potential stepfather. The high school gang in which Noboru is known as ‘Number Three’ quickly devises a plan to restore Ryuji’s honour – with terrible and shocking consequences.
The disturbing storyline finds its perfect musical expression in Henze’s versatile and haunting score. His instrumental characterisations of Noboru, Fusako and Ryuji provide continuity; his wide musical vocabulary allows effortless transitions from lyrical arias into menacing choruses and from freely flowing melodies into punctuated ostinatos. Unlike the sea in the opera’s title, the audience at Wiener Staatsoper will not feel betrayed by this truly special modern performance.