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Phaedra Op.93

Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)

Cristina Zavalloni

Cristina Zavalloni

Composer
Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Composition Year
1975
Work Movements
1. Prologue – In May in brilliant Athens
2. Recitative – My lost and dazzled eyes
3. Presto – You monster!
4. Recitative – Oh Gods of wrath
5. Adagio – My time’s too short
Artists
Paul Watkins [conductor], Alex Petcu-Colan [percussion], Ji Hye Jung [marimba], David Adams [harpsichord], Irish Chamber Orchestra, Cristina Zavalloni [soprano]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

In 1973 Britten had a major operation to replace the aortic valve in his heart. This bought him three extra years but he was an invalid for the rest of his life, tiring very easily and having huge difficulty composing. Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano and wife of Rostropovich, described the heavy, hollow beating of his heart and saw the pronounced throbbing of his shirt on the left side of his chest when she visited him in 1976. Lowell’s superb version of the Racine describing Phaedra’s calm acceptance of death – chills already dart along my boiling veins and seize my heart – must have had a resonance for Britten.

Phaedra was written for the great Janet Baker, whose singing of Berlioz’ Nuits d’été had been a highlight of the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival. She premiered it at the 1976 Festival. One well-known musician who was at the triumphant premiere thought of it as young man’s music and was appalled when he met the ill and feeble composer.

 

Britten takes his dramatic text from Lowell’s verse translation of Racine, who in turn had derived his drama from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra and Ariadne were the daughters of Pasiphaë and Minos, King of Crete. Minos had appealed to Poseidon to send him a pure white bull as a sign of his power. The bull indeed appeared miraculously but Minos refused to sacrifice him to Poseidon, who in revenge gets Aphrodite to make Pasiphaë fall in love with the bull and their offspring is the Minotaur. The Greek hero Theseus is sent to slay the Minotaur which he accomplishes with the help of Ariadne. The sisters flee with Theseus but he abandons Ariadne on the isle of Naxos and takes Phaedra as his second wife. His first wife was the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, who bore him a son Hippolytus. Phaedra is cursed by Aphrodite and falls madly in love with her stepson and when Theseus is thought to have perished at sea, she reveals her love but is rejected with horror. In revenge when Theseus finally returns she claims Hippolytus raped her. Theseus calls upon Poseidon to destroy his son, who sends his bull to terrify Hippolytus’ famous horses, who drag him to his death. Phaedra takes poison before confessing her guilt to Theseus.

Britten models his dramatic cantata on the Baroque cantata with three arias separated by recitatives even going to the lengths of accompanying the latter with a continuo group of harpsichord and cello. Phaedra herself is the last of Britten’s long line of outcasts forced outside society by doomed passions that cannot be fulfilled. He chooses the devastating text from different sections of the play, which confusingly conflates the chronology. The Prologue and first Recitative are Phaedra’s confession of her passion to her nurse, Oenone. The second aria shows Phaedra offering her terrifying love to Hippolytus and the following recitative comes before her terrible decision to accuse Hippolytus of rape.  By the final aria both Hippolytus and Oenone are dead and Phaedra is dying, while the composer himself has but a short while to live.

And yet the work is far from morbid. He tackles once again the terrible self-reproaches of another Aschenbach as Phaedra faces up to her guilty lust for her young stepson, her thick adulterous passion for this youth, who has rejected me and knows the truth. Britten even uses Lowell’s explicit imagery: look this monster, ravenous for her execution, will not flinch. I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch. Phaedra’s appeal to Aphrodite to spare her goes unanswered, but at the end she achieves a nobility in absolving Hippolytus of all guilt and her final, most terrible admission

My eyes at last give up their light, and see

the day they’ve soiled resume its purity.

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Phaedra Op.93

Composer: Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Performance date: Tuesday 3rd July 2012
Venue: St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland

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Composer Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Work Title Phaedra Op.93
Composition Year 1975
Work Movements 1. Prologue – In May in brilliant Athens
2. Recitative – My lost and dazzled eyes
3. Presto – You monster!
4. Recitative – Oh Gods of wrath
5. Adagio – My time’s too short
Artist(s) Paul Watkins [conductor], Alex Petcu-Colan [percussion], Ji Hye Jung [marimba], David Adams [harpsichord], Irish Chamber Orchestra, Cristina Zavalloni [soprano]
Performance Date Tuesday 3rd July 2012
Performance Venue St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland
Event Main Evening Concert
Duration 00:15:25
Recording Engineer Anton Timoney, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category Small Mixed Ensemble
Instrumentation mez-solo, orch, hpd, perc,
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

In 1973 Britten had a major operation to replace the aortic valve in his heart. This bought him three extra years but he was an invalid for the rest of his life, tiring very easily and having huge difficulty composing. Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano and wife of Rostropovich, described the heavy, hollow beating of his heart and saw the pronounced throbbing of his shirt on the left side of his chest when she visited him in 1976. Lowell’s superb version of the Racine describing Phaedra’s calm acceptance of death – chills already dart along my boiling veins and seize my heart – must have had a resonance for Britten.

Phaedra was written for the great Janet Baker, whose singing of Berlioz’ Nuits d’été had been a highlight of the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival. She premiered it at the 1976 Festival. One well-known musician who was at the triumphant premiere thought of it as young man’s music and was appalled when he met the ill and feeble composer.

 

Britten takes his dramatic text from Lowell’s verse translation of Racine, who in turn had derived his drama from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra and Ariadne were the daughters of Pasiphaë and Minos, King of Crete. Minos had appealed to Poseidon to send him a pure white bull as a sign of his power. The bull indeed appeared miraculously but Minos refused to sacrifice him to Poseidon, who in revenge gets Aphrodite to make Pasiphaë fall in love with the bull and their offspring is the Minotaur. The Greek hero Theseus is sent to slay the Minotaur which he accomplishes with the help of Ariadne. The sisters flee with Theseus but he abandons Ariadne on the isle of Naxos and takes Phaedra as his second wife. His first wife was the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, who bore him a son Hippolytus. Phaedra is cursed by Aphrodite and falls madly in love with her stepson and when Theseus is thought to have perished at sea, she reveals her love but is rejected with horror. In revenge when Theseus finally returns she claims Hippolytus raped her. Theseus calls upon Poseidon to destroy his son, who sends his bull to terrify Hippolytus’ famous horses, who drag him to his death. Phaedra takes poison before confessing her guilt to Theseus.

Britten models his dramatic cantata on the Baroque cantata with three arias separated by recitatives even going to the lengths of accompanying the latter with a continuo group of harpsichord and cello. Phaedra herself is the last of Britten’s long line of outcasts forced outside society by doomed passions that cannot be fulfilled. He chooses the devastating text from different sections of the play, which confusingly conflates the chronology. The Prologue and first Recitative are Phaedra’s confession of her passion to her nurse, Oenone. The second aria shows Phaedra offering her terrifying love to Hippolytus and the following recitative comes before her terrible decision to accuse Hippolytus of rape.  By the final aria both Hippolytus and Oenone are dead and Phaedra is dying, while the composer himself has but a short while to live.

And yet the work is far from morbid. He tackles once again the terrible self-reproaches of another Aschenbach as Phaedra faces up to her guilty lust for her young stepson, her thick adulterous passion for this youth, who has rejected me and knows the truth. Britten even uses Lowell’s explicit imagery: look this monster, ravenous for her execution, will not flinch. I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch. Phaedra’s appeal to Aphrodite to spare her goes unanswered, but at the end she achieves a nobility in absolving Hippolytus of all guilt and her final, most terrible admission

My eyes at last give up their light, and see

the day they’ve soiled resume its purity.