Dionysus´ Bloody Dance

The Bassarids

Salzburger Festspiele, Felsenreitschule

August 23, 2018. By Oxana Arkaeva

The attended second performance of the new production of the opera by Hanz Werner Henze “The Bassarids” at the Salzburg Festival on August 23, 2018, presented an extraordinary theatrical event that visually and aurally literally swept the audience away. Composed in 1965, and first presented in Salzburg in 1966 in German, the English libretto by Wystan Hugh Auden and Chester Kallman is based on the tragedy by Euripides “The Bacchae” from the year 406. Composed by Henze as an „Opera Seria with an Intermezzo“, tells a story about the eternal human struggle and resistance between lust and reason, desire and chastity, freedom and dependence, repression and revolt, as well as the invasion of the irrational, non-controllable, unreflecting destructive world, into a world of rationality, asserted life, and imaginary secure existence. It also tells the story of Dionysus, a charismatic-dangerous God, who induced the destruction of Thebes, as an act of revenge over his dead mother, Semele. The later, who was allegedly impregnated by Zeus himself, is the aunt of the young King Pentheus, Dionyssos cousin, whom both are engaged in a brutal rivalry in an attempt to protect their mothers Agaue and Semele.

Russel Braun, Sean Panikkar & Rosalba Gueterre Torres

At times overloaded with action staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski, the opera tells the story of two cousins, who collide in an unequal, deadly phychological duel, that ends in tragedy. It is also about such a demagogues like Dionysus, who easily succeeds in seducing the masses, turning it into a mass exaltation, dementia, and violence. Dionyssos, introduced by the „ Ayayalya!“ vocalize from behind the stage, arrives dressed up in a hooded jacket and sneakers, looking dangerous and ghost-like. The obedient, dutiful citizens of Thebes are nevertheless deeply attracted and succumb to this charismatic, mysterious stranger to celebrate with him his orgiastic feasts. Thus, the irrational fears, dreams, and sexual obsessions of Dyonissos encounter the world of the abstemious, suppressed passions of Pentheus. At first, scarcely trying to get “out of the closet”, Pentheus later fully indulges himself with the intoxication of his cousin´s persuasion power and becomes a victim of his as well intoxicated by Dionissos mother, who in a trance, dismembers her son’s body and cuts off his head.

Sean Panikkar

For his production of “The Bassarids” Warlikowski turned to the original, English version of the opera, with the interlude “The Judgment of the Calliope”, which is often omitted. In all, lasting about 2,5 hours, this time, unfortunately, interrupted by a break, the opera was deliberately composed by Henze for the Big Festival House (Große Festspielhaus). The Felsenreitschule, however, proves to be the ideal location for this kind of big opera productions, large orchestra, choir, and staging that explores psychological depths of the conflict. Warlikowski and stage designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak, divided the broad stage into three private, state and ritual place sectors:a kind of a temple, where the corpse of a dead woman (Semele) is exhibited, a cage-like, encounter place of the central drama personae, and the bedroom of the beautiful and seductive queen Agave. In the course of the evening, all premises lose their original individuality and melt to one place, where the ecstatic worship, wild orgy, and murder take place. The impressive lighting effects (Felice Ross)and simultaneous, black and white video projections (Denis Guéguin) create a dazzling, at time surreal atmosphere that perfectly fits the gloomy mood of the story.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner & Vera-Lotte Böcker

The singer’s ensembles consisted of musicians of an extraordinary level, who mastered well the vocally and technically demanding score of the Henze´s partiture. The slender-voiced baritone Russell Braun has masterly played and sung the role of Pentheus exposing all the shades of this complex character. The tenor Sean Panikkar as Dionysus gave, supported by his remarkable physical and vocal stage presence, powerful performance and a perfect contrast to his unfortunate cousin. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, like Agave, sang with a clear, powerful voice, though weak in diction, and had demanding stage presence. Her stage sister Autonoe / Proserpine by Vera-Lotte Böcker reminded in her demeanor and character the vulnerable Chrysothemis from Strausses “Elektra”, and sang with beautiful, expressive and full of colorful shades soprano.

Vera-Lotte Böcker, Károly Szemerédy, Nikolai Schukoff & Tanja Ariane Baumgartner

Nikolai Schukoff, himself a Dionysus in Munich ten years ago, made vocally and scenically a remarkable transformation from the manipulative God to a heroic Tiresias. Willard White as king Cadmus possessed a noble appearance, powerful tenor and excellent diction. The choir (excellent understudy by Huw Rhys James), accomplishes a masterpiece performance, both vocally and scenically. The beautiful Rosalba Guerrero Torres with a strong, trained, perfectly shaped body deserves an extra pray for her fearless acting and impressive choreography. The orchestra under Kent Nagano was both the reliable singer´s companion and soloist. The Symphonic emphasize of Henze´s score received a clear, precise, and accurate reading by the conductor, and allowed great musical moments juxtaposing the dramatic “chaos” on stage.

Rosalba Gueterre Torres & Sean Panikkar

The Wiener Philharmoniker, with its brass and percussion section, positioned laterally high above the orchestra pit, filled the audience with big symphonic sound, striking staccato rhythms, sturdy brass, brutal, “hunting”, excessive sound excursions as well as filigree, tonal-sounding instrumental colors throughout the entire performance. Returning to Salzburg after more than fifty years of absence, this “Bassarids” production is not only a tribute to Festival history, and composer´s artistic legacy, but is a comprehensible, extraordinarily piece of the musical theater. It made as well an equal contribution to the entire program of the past festivals, aimed to explore the dark side of desire and the human abysses, such as in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”, Monteverdi’s “Poppea”, and Strauss’s “Salome”.


Kent Nagano, Conductor Krzysztof Warlikowski, Staging Małgorzata Szczęśniak, Stage Design, and Costumes Felice Ross, Light Denis Guéguin, Video Claude Bardouil, Choreography Christian Longchamp, Dramaturg Huw Rhys James, Choir Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor Wiener Philharmoniker


Sean Panikkar, Dionysus Russell Braun, Pentheus Willard White, Cadmus Nikolai Schukoff, Tiresias / Calliope Károly Szemerédy, Captain / Adonis Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Agave / Venus Vera-Lotte Böcker, Autonoe / Proserpine Anna Maria Dur, Beroe Rosalba Guerrero Torres, Dance & Choreography (Solo)

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