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Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]
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.

György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente for soprano and violin, op.24 (1985-7)

Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Geoff Nuttall, violin; Peter Sellars, director; David Michalek, photography; Anna Kiraly, costume design; James F. Ingalls, lighting design; Jenny Lazar, production stage manager; Diane J. Malecki producer.Barbican Hall, London, 11 November 2010.

Above: Dawn Upshaw [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]


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.

Kurtag.gifGyörgy Kurtág

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.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for the programme of Kafka Fragments.

Click here for programme details.

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