In it, Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, finds herself passionately infatuated with his son, Hippolytus. He rejects her and she decides to kill herself. The documentary included an interview with Janet Baker in which she said how, when she was rehearsing the work with Britten, she felt overwhelmed by the evident personal significance of the words (those I've put in italics) in this excerpt and felt hardly able to sing them:
Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I've travelled on my dangerous path!
I go to meet my husband; at his side will stand
Hippolytus. How shall I hide my thick adulterous passion for this
youth, who has rejected
me, and knows the truth? Will he not draw his
sword and strike me dead? Suppose he spares
me? What if nothing's said? Can I kiss Theseus
with dissembled poise? The very dust rises to
disabuse my husband — to defame me and accuse!
Oenone(1), I want to die. Death will give me
freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
unhappy's no catastrophe!
(1)Oenone is Phaedra's nurse and confidante in Racine's Phedre. The text of Britten's Phaedra is taken from a translation of this by Robert Lowell.
And finally, another powerful revelation of the Britten centenary for me were the letters that passed between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears...
This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on this link or the British Composers label to read them all.