Major Operas | The Bassarids by Hans Werner Henze | Modern Era

Composed: 1965
Premiered: 1966, Salzburg
Libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman after Euripides’ The Bacchae

First Movement

Cadmus, King of Thebes, has abdicated in favour of his grandson, Pentheus, who intends to break with the traditional religious order and establish monotheism. An offstage voice announces that ‘the God Dionysus has entered Boeotia’. If legend is to be believed, this is the son of Zeus by Cadmus’s daughter Semele. Many Thebans follow the Voice to Mount Cytheron to become Bassarids. Beroe, Semele’s old nurse, remains true to the old gods, but Pentheus’ mother, Agave, welcomes the new cult. Pentheus extinguishes the flame on Semele’s tomb. The voice calls Agave and her sister Autonoe to Mount Cytheron.

Second Movement

Pentheus fears the cult and orders the imprisonment of anyone celebrating the festival of the Bassarids. A group of devotees captured at Mount Cytheron includes Agave, Autonoe, Tiresias and a Dionysian priest, whom Beroe recognizes as Dionysus himself.

Third Movement

The prisoners escape following an earthquake. In an intermezzo, Pentheus is shown his hidden erotic fantasies: the Judgment of Calliope, with his mother and aunt as Aphrodite and Persephone. The stranger induces him to dress as a woman and go to Mount Cytheron to watch the Bassarids and Maenads. They hear the voice denouncing him as a spy and tear him apart.

Fourth Movement

Agave brings Pentheus’s head back to Thebes. Still in thrall to the cult, she believes it is a lion. Cadmus has not succumbed and is able to bring his daughter back to her senses. She identifies the priest as Dionysus. The god banishes the royal house of Thebes and burns the palace. He raises his mother Semele from the dead and has her transported to Olympus as the goddess Thyone. The new cult is established in Thebes.

Personalities | Hans Werner Henze | Modern Era | Opera


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