The allusion's to Mozart's "Magic Flute" in Hans Werner Henze's opera "The Hoopoe and the Triumph of a Son's Love" are unmistakable and essential to deciphering Henze's fantasy. The son Kasim clearly reflects the prince Tamino. The Daemon who accompanies Kasim has much of Papageno in him. The bird in the cage? Of course. There are also echoes of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio in Henze's opera, which is set in an Arabian Nights world of magic and oriental cruelty. There's a lot more to "L'Upupa" than self-referential modernist tribute to the past of music, however. Henze has his own philosophical burden to deliver via music, and it's a different message than Mozart ever intended.
L'Upupa is all about longing, questing, and renouncing. A father who longs for one last song from the hoopoe (a symbolic bird in many texts of European and Arabic literature) sends his three sons in quest of it. Naturally, ala Brothers Grimm, it's the youngest son who embodies the necessary virtues of honesty and selflessness. On his quest, the son encounters his emotional counter-figure, his Daemon, and his sexual other-half, Princess Badi'at. These three roles are sung by Matthias Goerne, John Mark Ainsley, and Laura Aikin; their acting skills and voices certainly define their characters, so that subsequent productions of this opera will have to meet their very high standards. En route to bring home the magic bird, Kasim has to confront three tyrants, a sort of triple Sarastro, each of whom renounces one possibility of anti-virtue in favor of generosity. Meanwhile, Kasim's two elder brothers are comic villains, whose disloyalty and greed lead them into harsher and harsher trouble. When finally the Father, sung and spoken ardently by Alfred Muff, has his hoopoe in hand, what does he do but release the bird, an act of "letting go" that conveys the central theme of the opera, that of giving up freely what you cannot keep.
Henze's music is lush and complex, not something to hear once and claim to appreciate in its entirety. Unlike many modern operas, in which the orchestra is the true protagonist, L'Upupa features wonderful vocal "melos" - melody in the broadest sense - with vivid duets and trios being the strongest attraction to the ear. I'm fairly sure that I'll like this opera even more the second time I hear it, which is high praise for a contemporary work.
The staging and sets also deserve a word of commendation. The sets are well conceived to be visually interesting and meaningful without distracting the mind of the viewer from the words and music. Well-filmed, well-recorded, an absolute delight for all the senses, and a challenge for the mind as well.