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Hans Werner Henze The Bassarids

Opera seria with intermezzo in one act (1966)
Libretto by Wystan Hugh Auden and Chester Simon Kallman after Euripides’ Bacchae (406 BC)

New production

Sung in English
with German and English surtitles

Duration of the opera approx. 2 hours 50 minutes


  • 16 August 2018, 19:30


  • 19 August 2018, 15:00
  • 23 August 2018, 19:30
  • 26 August 2018, 19:30

Print programme (PDF)


Kent Nagano, Conductor
Krzysztof Warlikowski, Director
Małgorzata Szczęśniak, Sets and Costumes
Felice Ross, Lighting
Denis Guéguin, Video
Claude Bardouil, Choreography
Christian Longchamp, Dramaturgy


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, Dancer and Choreographer (Solo)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Huw Rhys James, Chorus Master
Vienna Philharmonic


A man (is he a charlatan or a demigod?) returns to his birthplace, where he wreaks havoc with the hierarchy of values and plunges one of Greece’s greatest cities into anarchy. No-one can resist him, not even the city’s young king, who is his cousin. The man has come to get his revenge, with the help of immoderation and beguiling ecstasy. This storm, this disease – in other words, the new religion – can only find satisfaction in ruination. The seductive traps the man lays to cast a spell over the citizens are freedom and lustfulness. At the end, amidst the rubble, he will implore his god to grant his mother (who died giving birth to him) eternal life. 

The story could also be told another way. A young king comes to power over a wealthy and prestigious city founded by his grandfather. After a few days of silence, the grave and severe young king announces that from henceforth he will refuse all contact with women and abstain from the consumption of wine and meat. Furthermore, he disapproves of any devotions being paid at the tomb of his aunt – his mother’s sister – who is revered by some because she gave birth to a child fathered by a god. However, the young king is only strong in appearance. In fact he is weak and lonely – and obsessed by his mother. Through the arrival of the man (is he a charlatan or a demigod?), his cousin, the young king is confronted with the negative of his own reflection. Nor will he be able to resist him for long. The young king embarks on an agonizing death march and demands to observe his mother in her passionate ecstasy. 

The name of the man (is he a charlatan or a demigod?) is Dionysus. And the name of the young king who has succeeded his grandfather Cadmus is Pentheus. The two cousins, Dionysus and Pentheus, become engaged in a fight to the death. It is an unequal struggle. The young king is the only person who believes that he is the equal of Dionysus. But no-one can resist Dionysus. Even Pentheus’ mother, Agave, is one of the first to leave the city to celebrate dissolute festivities – Bacchanals – on the mountain. Later, in a trance-like state, she will cut her son’s body into pieces and hew off his head. On the advice of Dionysus, Pentheus has disguised himself as a woman and is now no more than a tool in the hands of this man (is he a charlatan or a demigod?). 

Pentheus and Agave, Dionysus and Semele – two sons and two mothers. Oscillating between incestuous desire and insufferable grief, the two enemy cousins have one thing in common: they love their mothers with an obsessive and extraordinary love, which others regard with disapproval and execration. It is an illusory passion and one that leads to destruction. 

Hans Werner Henze’s opera received its first performance at the 1966 Salzburg Festival. Its musical richness, evocative power and dramatic originality make it one of the most important operas of the second half of the 20th century. The director of Salzburg’s new production, Krzysztof Warlikowski, is using the version performed at the premiere, thus retaining the often-cut intermezzo ‘The Judgement of Calliope’, in which the desires of Pentheus and his mother are reflected on another plane. 

Euripides’ Bacchae – which was the source of inspiration for Henze’s opera – was one of the last plays the great Greek dramatist wrote. He very likely completed it only shortly before his death in the year 406 bc. According to a persistent legend that has survived the centuries, Euripides was killed and devoured by the dogs of King Archelaus I when living in exile in Macedonia. This terrible death is clearly reminiscent of the death of Pentheus – and of Actaeon, who was torn apart by his own dogs. Like Actaeon, who surprised the naked Diana in the woods with her virgins, Pentheus saw what he was not allowed to see. In his drama, Euripides revealed something of the darkness at the heart of human passions – and the gods, angry at such great insight, took their revenge upon him…

Christian Longchamp, Translation: John Nicholson