»He is a sailor, a ship officer with the Japanese merchant navy; she is a rich, beautiful, young widow, probably due to the war. The two fall in love with each other in a natural way, befitting of the middle class. He even abandons his life of maritime adventure to marry her.Yet the one who is opposed to it, intensely and with hate and contempt and for various childish reasons, is Noboru, Madame Fusako's teenage son.«
This is how Hans Werner Henze (1926 - 2012) outlines the start to his story of »Das verratene Meer«, or »The Betrayed Sea«, which premiered in 1990.
Henze originated this storyline by following his fascination that he had of the work of the enfant terrible of post-war Japanese literature, Yukio Mishima (1925 - 1970), whose novel »Gogo no Eiko« (published in English under the title »The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea«), which forms the basis of the opera.
This novel, like almost all of the author's creations, sketches a suffocating scenario of hopelessness in which the struggle for normality is doomed to failure: the tensions between the character’s triangle only escalate in a gruesome lynching of a young gang.
The artist’s Henze and Mishima, who were close in age when this theatrical piece was created, share a traumatic past prompted by a fascist system. Its collapse unleashed their artistic creativity, which made them give in to take extreme positions that sprawl across a political spectrum that could not be more different: Henze followed the view of the Italian Communist Party, and Mishima that of an ultra-nationalist revisionist who eventually died in a ritual Japanese suicide after a failed coup attempt.
In referencing theatre performances, Henze formulated his respective position between the traditional sort and what could be called the avant-garde stance: »Theatre, just like music, must be constantly reinvented and yet lives from centuries of experiences that ignite us and challenge us, in order to be destroyed, to enhance us and to drive us forward. Nothing is aligned with the skilful form, the successful formulation... but also nothing with negation, renunciation or abstention; but everything can be aligned through expression, regardless of the consequences or even regardless of precocious laughter.« His free-tonal score ties in with musically-dramatic principles of composition following the tradition of Richard Strauss. Embedded in this play are highly differentiated vocal directions, which pull out all the stops, originating from Schönberg's spoken scenes to combine with »coloratura« or colourful song. In addition to sound effects, the composer also integrates elements of popular and dance music, following Alban Berg's methodology. An additional, central focus of the score is giving the characters a sculptural choreography, the performance of which is entrusted to a separate group of instruments: Henze has given the musical portrait of »Madame Fusako«, director of an exclusive Western fashion store in Yokohama, a very specific »Parisian« touch and has primed it with the string orchestra. Officer Ryuji is assigned the wind instruments – including unusual ones such as the contrabass clarinet, soprano saxophone and tenor trombone – which create a connection to the sound of the sea, while his vocal line is endowed with »baritonal, noble albeit average sentimentality«. For Noboru, on the other hand, the percussive ostinati of a »piano lesson« chanted by piano, celesta, harps and percussions is brought to excess. The quintet of the youth choir group encompasses the spectrum of male voices from countertenor to bass, with their ensemble movements taking up techniques from the early baroque madrigal tradition. In symphonic interludes, the luxurious orchestra gives the eponymous hero a voice: the angry »betrayed sea«.
With »The Betrayed Sea«, the directing duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito are making their debut at the Vienna State Opera, alongside set and costume designer Anna Viebrock, with whom they have already staged over 20 operas worldwide. Beneath the seemingly realistic surface of events, their performance explores paranoid structures of perception and traces the dangers and fragility of identity. The soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker, who has recently joined the ensemble of the State Opera, has won international acclaim especially with her performance of Henze roles such as Natalie in the »Prince of Homburg« or Autonoe/Proserpina in »The Bassarids«. With her portrayal of Fusako, she is now expanding the series of her Henze heroines. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, who is established in Vienna, returns to the center of his artistic endeavours with his debut as Ryuji. The young Canadian tenor Josh Lovell, a member of the State Opera's soloist ensemble since the 2019-20 season, is Noboru. Counter tenor Kangmin Justin Kim is making his debut in Vienna as »Number Two«. Simone Young is in charge of the musical direction, continuing her successful commitment to modern music at the State Opera.