“The title of Henze's 'German comedy in 11 tableaux based on the Arabic' translates as 'The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love'.
Setting his own libretto, and regarding the work as his farewell to the lyric stage, the composer casts a wryly retrospective eye on the magic and absurdity of the medium. This parable of the good son, al Kasim, who embarks on a dangerous quest for the beautiful, exotic hoopoe bird lost and longed for by his father, follows many time-honoured operatic precedents as the hero undergoes various trials and tribulations before finding true love and returning home safely, to be greeted by his grateful and loving father.
During al Kasim's quest for the hoopoe, his main companion and helper is a gently comic 'demon' who's more a fallen guardian angel than a Mephistopheles. The composer's affection seems centred on this character, portrayed by John Mark Ainsley with a restraint that makes the element of pathos the more effective.
During this final 10 minutes the music is purely orchestral, its poetic blend of eloquence and regret as touching in its distinctive way as Strauss's valedictory epilogue for Capriccio.
This recording from the Salzburg premiere is in most respects a delight for both eye and ear.
It's no great weakness that the young lovers, well sung and acted by Matthias Goerne and Laura Aikin, seem relatively one-dimensional alongside Ainsley's helpful, bewildered demon, and the stage production fits the work's knowingly light-hearted tone without overdoing the comic exoticism. With strong support from such seasoned character-singers as Hanna Schwarz and Alfred Muff, the only weak link is the rather pallid countertenor of Axel Köhler.
Technically, Brian Large is well practised in the art of avoiding excessive nudging of the viewer with obtrusively prolonged close-ups, and Markus Stenz is the ideal conductor to bring out the essential threads of Henze's richly diffuse musical weave.”