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
My eyes at last give up their light, and see
the day they’ve soiled resume its purity.