Die Bassariden - Synopsis

Hans Werner Henze: Die Bassariden. Michael Volle, Gabriele Schnaut, Eir Inderhaug Hans Werner Henze: Die Bassariden Hans Werner Henze: Die Bassariden. Nikolai Schukoff

Die Bassariden

Hans Werner Henze
Wystan Hugh Auden, Chester Kallman nach Euripides


King Pentheus, the new ruler of the city of Thebes, is in the invidious position of being plagued by doubts about the popular belief that Zeus, the father of the gods, was the lover of his Aunt Semele and questions the truth of the legend surrounding the birth of Dionysus.
Pentheus does not want to accept that the gods abandon themselves to the passions of the flesh. He equates lust and sensuality with impurity. And since Pentheus wants to believe in the purity of the gods and he himself wants to be a pure ruler, he forbids the cult of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and madness.

But a stranger appears in Thebes and persuades the populace to participate in mysterious rites on nearby Mount Cythaeron. The stranger, it is said, is a priest of Dionysus. The old prophet Teiresias and ultimately even Pentheus‘ mother Agave and her younger sister, Autonoe, also fall into the temptation of following the stranger.

Nobody seems to be obeying Pentheus‘ instructions. He questions his own mother in order to learn more about the mysterious rites. Finally he even questions the stranger himself, who challenges Pentheus to stop opposing the god Dionysus and his power.

When Pentheus tries to arrest the stranger, an earthquake shakes the city. The prisoners, among them Agave and Autonoe, manage to escape in the aftermath of the earthquake and flee to Cythaeron.

Only the stranger remains and he gradually wins Pentheus‘ trust; Pentheus suddenly finds himself isolated. He badgers the stranger with questions: what are the rites all about? Who is pure, who is impure? And what is his mother? The stranger’s reply is enigmatic: the pure are pure, the impure impure, just as they are everywhere.

Pentheus has a vision in which his own mother appears in the form of Venus who, in a lascivious game with Autonoe, seduces his captain of the guard.

Pentheus wants certainty; he intends to go to Mount Cythaeron to see the rites for himself. The stranger advises him to dress as a woman so that he will not be recognized. Pentheus does not object.

Beroe, Pentheus‘ nurse, and Cadmus, his grandfather, have long since realized that the stranger is Dionysus.

On Mount Cythaeron Dionysus urges his followers, among them Agave and Autonoe, to hunt out Pentheus, the enemy and trespasser in their midst. Agave kills her own son.

Next morning Cadmus brings Agave, who has returned to the city, to her senses. As she cradles the head of Pentheus, which has been torn from his body, in her arms, she realizes what she has done.

Dionysus reveals his identity and explains what motivated him to behave as he did. He wanted revenge for the disrespect which he suffered at the hands of Pentheus and he has taken his revenge. He shows no mercy as he continues to punish Pentheus‘ family with death and exile.

It is left to Agave to ask the question on everyone’s mind, does being a god mean being an inhuman monster.

The others are left with no choice other than to timidly recognize the Dionysian power, which can both bring and take life. But is the Dionysian divine?

Christof Loy

© Bavarian State Opera