18 Nov 2010
György Kurtág — Kafka Fragments, London
Can Haiku be improved by staging? György Kurtág's Kafka-Fragmente (op. 24), is a masterpiece of zen-like purity.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Can Haiku be improved by staging? György Kurtág's Kafka-Fragmente (op. 24), is a masterpiece of zen-like purity.
Although this music is well-known, this Barbican Hall, London performance — entitled “Kafka Fragments” — was the first time Peter Sellars’ staging has been seen in Europe. What would Sellars’ staging add to such music?
The beauty of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments lies in its minimalist purity. Forty brief quotes from Kafka’s diaries appear, many barely more than a sentence long. Meaning is elusive. “Die Weissnäherinnen in den Regengüssen” (washerwomen in downpours), for example, which is the entire text of song 9. Kurtág sets the words so they slide up and down the scale in strange, disoriented cadence, the violin part edgily racing beside the voice. What does the image mean? Is Kurtág illustrating the image or is he purposefully using it to hint at something wholly intangible?
Kurtág deliberately chose fragments because they are incomplete, and because they are fragile. They are existentialist utterances, beyond explanation. Meaning is distilled, intensely condensed like a homeopathic substance with power to expand in your soul. Most of Kurtág’s music is like this, highly polished miniatures to be carefully savoured on an intuitive level. Very zen, exquisitely beautiful.
But does something so esoteric need to be confined by concrete staging? Sellars interprets the Fragments with heavy handed literalism, seizing on brief references of purity and dirt to create a soap opera of domestic banality. Dawn Upshaw is seen sweeping, ironing, changing light bulbs and in one memorable image, with a plastic basket over her head. When Kafka remarks on concealment, is he being silly? In his pre-performance talk, Sellars told the audience that cleaning a bathroom was a great source of contemplation. Perhaps to him, but not to all. In his recent staging of Tristan und Isolde, Sellars also used elaborate projections of a long cleansing ritual which bore little relevance to the opera. Wagner as spa? Perhaps it’s a Sellars’ thing. In this case, the photographic projections were not by Bill Viola but by David Michalek, and even more distracting.
Kurtág needs staging, he added. To loosely paraphrase Sellars, “If you associate a song with a visual image, you can follow it”. Yet Kafka-Fragmente is only an hour long, less than many symphonies. Each fragment is so distinct that it’s really not hard to follow if you listen attentively. The danger is worrying too much about consuming what you see on the page, rather than absorbing the whole by listening on a more profound, oblique level.
All performances involve interpretation. Even reading a score means personal input. But too literal a layer of expression obliterates without adding insight. Like haiku, Kurtág’s music is magical because it’s both elusive and utterly lucid at the same time, but treating it too literally defeats the whole purpose. This perhaps is why Sellars’ staging was so disappointing.
There were good moments where his images matched the music, such as the swaying movements in the first song, like the ticking of a clock. “Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt....die Tänze der Zeit” (The Good march in step...the Dances of Time). Yet many of these fragments are evocative because they defy easy stereotypes. Forcing them into a narrative diminishes their power. When Kafka writes of pain, he doesn’t simply mean a woman pressing a hot iron into her face.
In principle, there’s nothing inherently wrong about staging music, particularly vocal music. Otherwise we wouldn’t have opera or ballet. But Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente work because they are beyond definition, their meaning deliberately open-ended and mysterious. It’s this freedom that makes aphoristic music so liberating. Kurtág explicitly connects to Anton Webern through the dedication to Pierre Boulez, Webern’s great champion. “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended” “Stolzen zu machen, als begangen zu werden”. (making you stumble rather than easily walk) Obliqueness, again, and contradiction. Very haiku. For Sellars the rope seems to imply suicide. Whether that’s valid or not, it means something different to Kurtág.
The Barbican Centre in London should be commended because it does innovative, daring work for contemporary music and opera. Last year they did Eötvös’s Angels in America, and Michael van der Aa’s After Life. The Barbican has also staged several of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, for which Peter Sellars did excellent semi-stagings. These were successful because they encapsulated the essential drama in Saariaho’s diffuse, chromatic reveries. With Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente the opposite happens. In his pre-performance talk, Sellars gave many different explanations for his choices, a kitchen sink approach, perhaps in the hope that some of the ideas might work. If only he had absorbed the inner essence of Kurtág’s ethos, that less is more and that muzak isn’t music.
The benchmark recording of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente is easily the one with Juliane Banse and András Keller, on ECM (2006). It is the keynote, as Keller has worked with Kurtág for many years and performed most of his work for violin. Indeed, the composer was involved in making the recording. High standards indeed, so it’s to Dawn Upshaw’s credit that her singing was up to the mark. She’s possibly the most experienced American singer in contemporary repertoire, and it showed in the way she negotiated Kurtág’s quirky lines and silences. Technically, Upshaw’s voice is more lustrous than Banse’s but the setting let her down.
The violinist here was Geoff Nuttall of the St Lawrence Quartet of Stanford, who has performed this piece with Upshaw and Sellars in the United States. He’s quoted as saying the piece is “almost unplayable” though Keller shows what’s possible. Nuttall was at an unfair advantage because Sellars’ staging nullified the tight, knife-edge balance between voice and violin which is fundamental to the piece. Upshaw was wonderful, but in many ways, the Kafka Fragments aren’t really a song cycle so much as intensely concentrated chamber music.
The Kafka-Fragmente have been around for 25 years. György Kurtág, his wife Marta and other musicians closely associated with them appear in person in London fairly frequently. Indeed, some in the audience at the Barbican were long time friends. Perhaps Sellars’ staging might have impressed audiences that don’t know the music, or put them off entirely. But for me it felt like seeing some great classic of European or Japanese art cinema remade for daytime TV.