Hans Werner Henze and librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel based their 1988 opera Das Verratene Meer, on Gogo no eiko on the novella by Yukio Mishima, which is usually translated into English as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. At the urging of conductor Gerd Albrecht, Henze expanded and reworked the opera, and adapted it to a Japanese libretto for this revival at the 2006 Salzburg Festival. The music is more romantic in tone than that of most of Henze's earlier operas, even though it is still stylistically disjunct, and its musical vocabulary is rarely tonal; it could never be mistaken as a work of neo-Romanticism. Its gestures can be broadly expressive, though, and it has moments of sweeping lyricism that set it apart from the ironic detachment that tended to characterize his earlier operas. The plot has two interwoven strands, one straightforwardly romantic and the other chillingly perverse. A grieving young widow discovers love again and is moving toward happiness with a sailor who has given up a life at sea to be with her, while at the same time, her 13-year-old son and his gang of friends move toward committing an act of unspeakable cruelty that will certainly destroy her world as well as their own. Henze has said that this is his favorite work of his later years. The music is so strikingly inventive, colorful, and powerful, and the composer's sure dramatic instincts so masterfully bring the story and the characters to life that it would be hard to disagree with his evaluation; Gogo no eiko has the musical substance and dramatic punch to make it an opera that deserves to endure and join the ranks of contemporary classics.
The opera has a flaw, though, and it's one that's insoluble. Henze assigns the roles of the five early adolescents to adults -- a tenor, two baritones, a bass, and a counter tenor -- and thus hugely diminishes the impact of their actions, particularly in their climactic scene with the sailor, a baritone, because physically and vocally there's no contrast between their extreme youth and his maturity. But if Henze had used boys, he would have sacrificed the timbral variety that's essential for differentiating the boy's characters and would have had to drastically simplify the vocal parts.
Albrecht conducts Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in a riveting account of the score. The largely Japanese cast excels in bringing out the soaring lyricism and psychological depth in lines that in less skilled hands could sound angular and disjointed. Orfeo's sound quality is very fine for a live performance, with excellent clarity and balance, and a minimum of ancillary noises. This superb recording of Gogo no eiko confirms it as a significant addition to the repertoire, a work that deserves the attention of anyone with an interest in contemporary opera.