As Kasper Holten so rightly says in his usual introduction to the programme, Luca Francesconi is one of the most important opera composers alive today. It is significant that his debut on the London stage is under the auspices of The Royal Opera House and that it is only three years since the world premiere of Quartett at La Scala Milan, a challenging piece based on a radical reworking of Les liaisons dangereuses.
I chose to attend this premiere because I am already an admirer of Signor Francesconi’s music, most notably of his finest orchestral work to date, Cobalt/Scarlet which you can hear on the Stradivarius label. More than a decade ago I attended the premiere of Ballata at La Monnaie, in a wacky production which said more about the director’s fixation with women’s breasts than it did about the tense retelling of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. If back then I had any reservations about Signor Francesoni’s skill as a composer and dramatist, it was that his large-scale works of that era began with stunning intensity, promising to transport the listener into magical worlds; disappointingly I felt that two-thirds of the way through he would lose his way and not know how to end his creations.
On hearing Quartett I am delighted to report that Signor Francesoni, a pupil of both Stockhausen and Berio and a true European intellectual, has come into his own as a composer and creative artist over the last decade. Quartett as a musical creation is pretty damn near perfect. Based on a fiendishly difficult play which is superficially devoid of humanity, Francesconi has produced a tautly-written, highly atmospheric, at times almost beautiful score which seems to swirl in and out of this in-your-face depiction of hell, a hugely spatial, contemplative score which offers chinks of light, if not hope in response to the playwright’s seemingly unrelenting nihilism. The orchestral music was played with total commitment by the London Sinfonietta, under the direction of Andrew Gourlay. A subtle, highly skilful use of electronics produced by Serge le Mouton in collaboration with the composer created an extraordinary disembodied atmosphere, enhanced by Soutra Gilmour’s rather beautiful set design and film projections onto the sheets of ice created by Ravi Deepres.
The English text, created by the composer himself offered perhaps the greatest challenge to the two protagonists, played on the opening night by Kirsten Chávez and Leigh Melrose. Miss Chávez for this critic gave an utterling compelling performance. Ever word was delivered with clarity, redolent of meaning. She has a rich mezzo with an attractive timbre particularly at the bottom of her tessitura. I can’t imagine for a minute that the playwright intended us to like or sympathise with her character, but somehow Miss Chávez played her monstrous regiment of women (and men) with both sadness and dignity, allowing us to pity her in her destructive spiral.
Leigh Melrose has a very fine baritone voice, sometimes shocking in its power. The vocal setting of his lines seemed much more fragmented, with the use of a lot of falsetto. This protagonist appeared well ahead of his partner in a descent into madness. My experience of handling psychosis is such that I have learned not to engage directly with a person who has entered this self-destructive mode. You have to protect yourself. So I couldn’t feel any kind of empathy with his distress. It didn’t help that his delivery of the fractured lines tended to distort the words, making me think for some time that he must have sung the role before in Italian and be struggling with the sense of the text. It makes me want to hear what Mark Stone of the second cast makes of the role to understand better if it is Francesconi’s vocal setting which underlies this problem.
Quartett is much more of a mature and skilful work than Ballata, which is I suppose the strongest argument for choosing the more recent work to represent Francesconi working at his peak as a creative artist. However I do wonder if a cleverly edited version of Ballata would not have spoken much more immediately to a British audience. The text and context of the Coleridge of course has an immediate cultural resonance for us.
Instead John Fulljames decided to present Francesconi’s take on Quartett by Heiner Müller, premiered in 1980 and banned a year later as pornographic. “In Müller’s radical revision of the original story by Choderlos de Laclos only two roles have remained: the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. These former lovers have reduced love to a power game in which love affairs with others are a means to gain control over each other. Valmont intimates that he has fallen in love with the married Madame de Tourvel; Merteuil is irritated by this and challenges him to seduce her niece, the virgin Volanges. Valmont agrees. What ensues is a perverse role play, in which Merteuil and Valmont change sexes and play out the love scenes with the married woman and the virgin between themselves. In other words, the quartet mentioned in the title is attained by Merteuil and Valmont doubling themselves. When they have lost themselves completely in this way and could be anybody or nobody, a power game to the death begins.” I am grateful to the dramaturg of the Holland Festival for this helpful synopsis.
There are lots of reasons why the work of Herr Müller is not immediately accessible to British audiences. The British are of course infamously phlegmatic when it comes to politics. We also tend to go for rather amusing farces with decidedly gentle humour, even when making subtle points about human sexuality or the British class system. Müller by contrast spent his life suffering, first from the Nazis and then as a philosophical socialist under the totalitarian regime of the GDR (which didn’t suit him either.) It is understandably difficult for the average British opera audience to engage with this political firebrand when we prefer drama which doesn’t “frighten the horses.” The nearest equivalent, at a stretch, is the 1950s/1960s era of Angry Young Men, encompassing John Osborne and Kingsley Amis with perhaps a little taste of Joe Orton and Harold Pinter thrown in.
Whilst the original 18th century novel depicts two aristocrats who revel in their ability to abuse the hearts and minds of a range of younger, more naïve people in a chess game of sexual intrigue, Müller exposes this kind of human behaviour, post-WW3 (of course) for the bullying, inhumane, cruel persecution of lesser mortals it actually represents. It necessitates stripping away the etiquette, the niceties, the lightheartedness of the original, which was then so shocking when it lead to death. Here there is an inevitability, rather akin to Ancient Greek drama, that humans who play God will precipitate themselves into the pit. He wants his audience to face the reality of the torture of prisoners of war and the inhumanity of suicide bombers. Even German critics describe Müller’s reworking of the novel as a play about “dead souls.” There is the added challenge for British audiences that German theatre of the 20th century moved away from a storytelling or narrative approach to drama to exploring dilemmas on several levels simultaneously, as if conducting a dialectical argument.
If you are of a nervous disposition or are easily offended, then this is not a production for you. If the Germans thought Müller’s work was pornographic, it is bound to offend British ears. I found it shocking but also pitiable as two people with no morals drag each other into utter depravity. But then I found it almost as difficult to feel anything for the protagonists of Turnage’s Anna Nicole” or Weir’s Miss Fortune. By contrast Sciarrino’s The Killing Flower, also staged in the Linbury, I found utterly compelling from start to finish, despite this also being a contemporary opera about sex and death. The music and electronics in Quartett are world class, as are the playing and the production; but the play itself and the behaviour depicted are so beyond the pale that one has to make a huge effort not to avert one’s gaze and become numb in the face of horror.
(photos: c. ROH Stephen Cummiskey)