When visiting a new country, it helps to know its language and customs. Francesconi's music may seem strange, but that doesn't make it invalid. Francesconi's music is modern but connects deeply to European culture.
Quartett might seem gruesome but no more so than the original story, which was written in 1782. In Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons damgereuses Valmont and Merteuil play kinky mind games. They manipulate other people , and pride themselves on their cynical lack of emotional engagement. They're specially drawn to good people like Madame de Tourvel, because they get a special kick from destroying genuinely good and sincere people. The original book is so well known that it should be part of basic education, but there's also a summary on Wikipedia and a Meryl Streep movie.
Francesconi's setting, based on a play by Heiner Mueller, predicates on the idea that Merteuil and Valmont are alone in an apocalyptic wasteland. It doesn't really matter what disaster has befallen them, save that they've lost the wealth and privileges that let them get away with so much for so long. Perhaps they're in Purgatory, forced to face the consequences of what they have done. Can there be any greater hell for two people who have escaped responsibility for their actions because of their social status.
At first we see a woman ( Kirsten Chávez) in the tatters of an 18th century noblewoman's gown, her corset still tightly laced. Despite what's around her all she can think of is sex. "The skin remembers touch", she groans, "whether hand or claw". At least she's facing one aspect of her depravity. Significantly, the word "Tourvel" intrudes on her consciousness. Tourvel, the virtuous wife Merteuil challenged Valmont to seduce. Tourvel gave into Valmont out of warped Christian generosity because she thought her love might redeem him: the complete opposite of Merteuil Thus Meretuil is obsessed with her memory
The book, Les Liaisons damgereuses is a collection of letters, reputedly exchanged by Merteuil and Valmont as they plot their stratagems and taunt one another. In a modern novel, we read multiple points of view, and the author's commentary. In letter-novels we have only the letter writers' perspective: we have to guess between the lines how other people feel. The structure of Francesconi's Quartett replicates this anomie, so fundamental to the emotional disengagement Merteuil and Valmont seek to achieve.
The epistolary nature of the original also influences Francesconi's dramatic form. Miniature scenes progress seamlessly, ideas and persona changing back and forth. The vocal lines are arch, like the tone in the letters. In the opera, Leigh Melrose sings great falsetto! Valmont and Merteuil act out different scenarios, like method actors, trying to find their way into an experience. They switch rapidly between personas, sometimes reversing parts. Fransceoni's mentor was the late Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, whose influence can be heard in Francesconi's use of spatial relationships and electronic sound. Sometimes the singers stand silent, listening to recordings of their own voices singing other parts, making them reflect. . Perhaps that's why the opera is called "Quartett", though there are only two players. It may also refer to the chamber music upon which Francesconi's reputation was built, where players interact with each other in intricate formation.
Andrew Gourlay conducted the London Sinfonietta. This isn't easy music to play although it's so atmospheric that it sets the background to the story. The orchestra murmurs comment, and screams in frustration, suggesting the unseen voices of people whom Valmont and Merteuil block out of their consciences. Quartett is much more sophisticated and satisfying than much of what the London Sinfonietta has been doing in recent years.
Gradually Valmont and Merteuil get deeper into the wider implications of what they have done. Valmont and Merteuil think of Cécile, the young virgin straight from convent whom Valmont seduced, and ruminate on the idea of sin and the church, They ponder the irony that the parts they pollute once gave them life. In the book, Valmont is thrown off his scams because he developed genuine feelings for Tourvel. Merteuil had to acknowledge that she had feelings for him under her tough exterior. Perhaps, as Valmont sings, they'll get together in hell. Thus he willingly drinks poison and dies, while Merteuil is left alone, waiting.
John Fulljames's staging highlights the psychic dislocation. Soutra Gilmour's simple panels of fabric hang down from the ceiling, giving a vertical dimension to the horizontal stage. With intelligent lighting (the wonderful Bruno Poet) the fabric can resemble torn lace, or mountains, or reversed, black flames reaching upwards from Hell. Sounds Intermedia mixed the electronics. Ravi Deepres created the video projections. Mark Stone and Angelica Voje sing in the second cast.
Please also read ">Susana Malkki on Francesconi . She conducted Quartett in Milan and Amsterdam.