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The Bassarids

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Title: The Bassarids  
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Subject: Elegy for Young Lovers, Hans Werner Henze, Chester Kallman, The Bacchae, W. H. Auden
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The Bassarids

The Bassarids

(in German, Die Bassariden) is an opera in one act and an intermezzo, with music Hans Werner Henze to an English libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, after Euripides's The Bacchae.

The conflict in the opera is between human rationality and emotional control, represented by the King of Thebes, Pentheus, and unbridled human passion, represented by the god Dionysus.


  • Background 1
  • Performance history 2
  • Roles 3
  • Synopsis 4
  • Instrumentation 5
  • Recordings 6
  • References 7
    • Notes 7.1
    • Sources 7.2


A noteworthy feature of the opera is its construction like a classical symphony in four 'movements':[1]

  • 'Movement I' = sonata form
  • 'Movement II' = scherzo and trio
  • 'Movement III' = adagio and fugue
  • 'Movement IV' = passacaglia

Henze has noted that he quotes from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion and the English Suite in D minor.[2] Auden and Kallman wrote of changes that they made to the Euripides original for the purposes of this opera.[3]

Performance history

It was first performed in a German translation by Maria Basse-Sporleder in Salzburg on 6 August 1966 conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.

The first performance using the original English text, as well as the US premiere, was at Santa Fe Opera on 7 August 1968, with the composer conducting and a staging by director Bodo Igesz.[4] The opera was also given in London on 22 September 1968, and was revived at English National Opera in October 1974, with the composer conducting.[5]

In October 1990, two concert performances sung in the original English were given at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, by the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Vernon Hartman, Kenneth Riegel, and, in the role of Agave, Anja Silja. Christoph von Dohnányi, who was married to Silja at the time, conducted. This same production was repeated at Carnegie Hall in November 1990 at the New York premiere of the music, which was attended by the composer.

In March 1968 The Bassarids was performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, conducted by Nino Sanzogno in an Italian translation by Fedele D'Amico.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast,[6] 6 August 1966
(Conductor: Christoph von Dohnányi[7])
Dionysus, voice and stranger tenor Loren Driscoll
Tiresias, an old blind prophet tenor Helmuth Melchert
Cadmus, founder and former king of Thebes bass Peter Lagger
Agave, his daughter, mother of Pentheus mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer
Beroe, an old slave, once nurse to Semele and Pentheus contralto Vera Little
Captain of the Royal Guard baritone William Dooley
Pentheus, king of Thebes baritone Kostas Paskalis
Autonoe, daughter of Cadmus soprano Ingeborg Hallstein
A female slave in Agave's household silent
Her daughter silent
Chorus of bassarids, citizens of Thebes, guards, servants


The setting is ancient Thebes. Prior to the opera, Dionysus has stated that he intends to revenge himself upon Agave and the women of Thebes because they have denied his divinity.

At the start of the opera, Cadmus, King of Thebes, has abdicated his throne in favour of his grandson Pentheus. Pentheus has learned of the cult of Dionysus, which involves wild and irrational revelry. Pentheus plans to ban the cult from his city. A stranger arrives in town and seduces the citizens into increasingly frenetic celebration of the god Dionysus. Because Pentheus is unaware of his own irrational, "Dionysiac" impulses, or tries to suppress them, Dionysus can entrance Pentheus and intrude upon his nature to the point that Pentheus disguises himself as a woman, and goes to Mount Cytheron, where the revelry is occurring. In the course of events, the spell over the citizens extends to Agave, Pentheus' mother, and Autonoe, Pentheus' sister. Pentheus is killed and torn to pieces, and his city brought to ruin. Without realising it, Agave cradles the severed head of her son in her arms. The Stranger is revealed to be Dionysus himself.



  • Gerd Albrecht, conductor; Kenneth Riegel, Andreas Schmidt, Michael Burt, Robert Tear, Karan Armstrong, Ortrun Wenkel, William B. Murray, Celina Lindsey; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; 1986, Koch Schwann International (314-006)[8]
  • Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor; Loren Driscoll, Kostas Paskalis, Peter Lagger, Helmut Melchert, William Dooley, Kerstin Meyer, Ingeborg Hallstein, Vera Little; Choir of the Vienna State Opera; Vienna Philharmonic; 2003, ORFEOInternational (C 605,032 I)



  1. ^ Terry Apter, "Tristan and The Bassarids". Tempo, pp. 27, 28, 30 (1975).
  2. ^ "The Bassarids: Hans Werner Henze talks to Paul Griffiths". The Musical Times, pp. 831–832 (1974).
  3. ^ W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, "Euripides for Today" (October 1974). The Musical Times, 115 (1580): pp. 833–834.
  4. ^ "Out of the Ashes". Time. 23 August 1968. Retrieved 2007-09-07. 
  5. ^ Dean, Winton, "Music in London: Opera – The Bassarids" (December 1974). The Musical Times, 115 (1582): pp. 1057–1064.
  6. ^ Porter, Andrew, "Reports: Salzburg – Henze's Bassarids" (October 1966). The Musical Times, 107 (1484): pp. 882–887.
  7. ^ Helm, Everett (1967). "Current Chronicle". The Musical Quarterly LIII (3): 408–415.  
  8. ^ , 186–188 (1993).9(3), The Opera Quarterly. Hans Werner Henze" (recording review). Die BassaridenDavid E. Anderson, "


  • Amadeus Almanac, accessed 26 October 2008 (Italian)
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