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23 May 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht, Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Léa Trommenschlager (Eve)

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/Southbank Centre


This exploration is particularly ripe in Donnerstag aus Licht - an opera attuned to Stockhausen’s reshaping of musical perceptions. Take away the impossibility of what the composer asks us to see and what are you left with? The answer is a mystical cosmos which probes the notion of invisibility in music, the relationship between space and time, of spatial divisions and oscillating perspectives in sound, the fusion of the electronic and the instrumental, and a matrix of ideas that is quite simply ravishing on the ears.

There is a clear argument for suggesting that what Stockhausen does in his Licht operas is to ritualise the concert experience - and this is probably a little more easy to identify in Donnerstag aus Licht, the opera which was written first and which often seems less extravagant than some of those which followed. Benjamin Lazar’s stage direction for this concert performance placed ritual at its epicentre; but his real achievement was to remain entirely - or, at least largely - faithful to the text without swamping it with detail. In what is often quite a personal and autobiographical work from the composer, this semi-staging often made this strikingly clear.

This is an opera which begins and ends outside the theatre, and in one sense this is entirely in keeping with its accumulating mass of thematic ideas, especially in the music Stockhausen composed for it. ‘Donnerstags-Gruss’ begins in the foyer, taking in music we will hear in the opera (those Bali riffs, for example). ‘Donnerstags-Abschied’ which ends it takes place outside the theatre - and proved acoustically rich on this occasion. With five trumpeters playing from high up on the balcony of the Royal Festival Hall, and in the front of the river, it was that very spatial dimension, the ebbing and flowing of perspective, which repeated so much of what you heard in the hall itself.

Act I (Michaels Jugend) is sparsely scored, but it throws us immediately into the triplicate format that Stockhausen rarely deviates from. Eve, Luzifer and Michael emerge - and then merge. ‘Kindheit’ is a trio devoted to childhood - of a mother teaching her son the days of the week, of Luzifer the rote learning of numbers. But it is about remembrance of the past, too. Of soldiers in Nazi Germany, of childhood hunting trips, of a mother’s descent into madness. This is the tragedy of any dysfunctional family - and Lazar’s direction doesn’t shirk from showing us this. In ‘Mondeva’ Eve is restrained by doctors, a needle injected into her neck (almost recalling the horror of forced Nazi euthanasia) and drowned in a bathtub; Luzifer dies on a battlefield. In ‘Examen’ Michael is seen auditioning for entry to a conservatory. Stockhausen didn’t necessarily have to look too far for the plot here because it largely came from his own past. But the complexity is in the shadows he creates - the trio of singers is replicated in a trio of instruments (a trumpet, a trombone and a basset horn) and by the end of the act they have all gone through the incarnations that come to symbolise the fracturing of time in Stockhausen’s world.

It was immediately apparent from the very beginning of Act I how superlative the singing was, how entirely immersed in the roles the soloists were. It was to be a hallmark of the opera throughout. Léa Trommenschlager’s Eve was extraordinarily powerful - but she managed to bridge motherly tenderness with simplicity; when she began her descent into madness you were reminded of Seneca’s Medea - but in almost pocket-sized form. Hubert Mayer’s Michael managed to achieve the impossible - a reduction of his voice into youthfulness and innocence, with just a hint of inquisitiveness. Damien Pass’s Luzifer is a voice centred on a dark, rich bass - but how stentorian he was, almost terrifying at times. One could argue amplification made all these voices more focussed and more forward than they might normally sound, but the upside was their German was impeccably clear.

Zerdoud.jpg Iris Zerdoud (Eve, basset horn). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/Southbank Centre.

Act II (Michaels Reise um die Erde) is unusual in that it is derived entirely from instrumental and electronic forces. Stockhausen thinks somewhat outside the box here in that Michael (this time as a trumpeter) travels the earth in a vast globe while the orchestra are penguins at the bottom of a glacier-covered world. Lazar’s compromise (for that is all he can do) is to have a projector screening the rotating of a celestial orb - almost with the randomness of a dice being thrown - with each stop on this whistle-stop journey being shown. We travel to Cologne (perhaps not that coincidental since it was where Stockhausen was born), New York, Japan, Bali, Central Africa and India. The stops might be brief - but the styles are ever-changing, like a musical kaleidoscope.

This is an act that is about conflict and combat; but it also one that is about a journey entwined in love and eroticism. It is a tour de force of musical creativity, enormous virtuosity and skill - often asking its central characters to play their instruments and act simultaneously as well. Benjamin Lazar’s direction left nothing to the imagination here and this was simply galvanising theatre. In its most basic form, this whole second act is like a vast trumpet concerto though the interplay between instruments really makes it more than this. It opens with Michael’s trumpet (the magnificent Henri Deléger) and Luzifer’s trombone (the equally superb Mathieu Adam) engaged in a duel, sparring centre stage with instruments flashing like foils. A clarinet (Alice Caubit) and basset horn (Ghislain Roffat) buzz around the orchestra, menacingly and waspishly, acting like clowns. Michael duets with a tuba (Stuart Beard) and then slays him like a bear. A love scene is played out between Michael and Eve (here played on the basset horn by Iris Zerdout) though it seems both macabre and heavily ritualised in its love-making with an almost sleazily erotic edginess to it.

The two scenes that comprise Act III (Michaels Heimkehr) are vastly different in scale. ‘Festival’ is for large choral forces and orchestra; ‘Vision’ is like chamber music, focussed mostly on the Michael performers and acts as a kind of summation of all that has gone before. For some, ‘Vision’ can draw one in with its cathartic, hypnotic translucence; for others, it’s a long-drawn out epilogue where the attention flags. Which camp you fall into will largely depend on the quality of the three Michaels - and also on the dramatization which accompanies them through the half-hour stretch this music takes. I think this performance succeeded - perhaps narrowly - in taking us into the cathartic side.

DaL Act 3.jpgDamien Pass (Luzifer), Emmannuelle Grach (Michael). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/Southbank Centre.

Act III didn’t really disappoint in its relative closeness to the text. This act is all about Donnerstag aus Licht in tri-form - Eve, Michael and Luzifer are all, at one stage or another, represented as singer, instrumentalist or dancer. Eve presents Michael with three plants, the branches of which he interprets as rays of light, and there follows three light shows. As the words “then streams come down” appeared on screen so the light show began - multi-coloured lasers, in broken shards, or diamond trellises, a web that stretched across the stage. A tam-tam glowed like a sun (or perhaps a moon), for it to shift into an eclipse. With the words “glass suns” it seemed to be refracted in a mirror, but then became the iris of an eye. Act III is the depiction of Michael returning to his celestial home - and Lazar took this more than literally.

Invisible choruses are heard on tape - but they are then taken up by five sectional choruses divided around the stage. But there is conflict as well. The Michael and Luzifer dancers tumble and fight, soon to be joined by the trumpet and trombone in battle - until Luzifer is vanquished. But he reappears in his human form as tormenter. ‘Vision’ is almost a kind of shadow play, the learning curve through which Michael has travelled on his journey.

There is an undeniable feeling of completeness in Donnerstag aus Licht as you experience it, not least because it seems self-contained as theatre. But, you can also begin to see the disintegration of the structure Stockhausen was to bring to later Licht operas in how the acts themselves are conceived. Benjamin Lazar’s concert staging perhaps isolated this more than one might have expected - the bareness of Act I seemed very hollow against the overwrought franticness of ‘Festival’ from Act III. Much of ‘Festival’ had been very impressive, even if it felt just a little too like a carnival at times - Mathieu Adams’s trombone-playing and tap-dancing Luzifer was simply extraordinary to watch, for example. Henri Deléger’s trumpet-playing Michael was so heroic, the timbre so assured whether the playing was muted or played open, that he was clearly the dominant force here. It’s rare that you hear such colour brought to this instrument, but here it was so variegated. Jamil Attar’s Luzifer (as dancer) was elliptical in his body-shaping, athletically brilliant but with every movement seemed to synchronise with the tenebrous shadows that Pass’s vocal Luzifer breathed like fire.

Henri Deléger.jpg Henri Deléger (Michael, trumpet). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/Southbank Centre.

The three Michaels in ‘Vision’ were a mesmeric trio. One of the difficulties Stockhausen can sometimes over-emphasise in the Licht operas is an indistinct timbre in the vocal line. These are characters at different stages, and they imply different things through a long journey. Hubert Mayer’s younger Michael never wavered in his innocence. Safir Behloul was hugely impressive as the Act III Michael - especially in ‘Vision’ where so much of his singing shifts from German into a kind of Stimmung style of phrasing. Deléger’s often breathtaking trumpet playing just dazzled in its tone colours.

Le Balcon, the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble and New London Chamber Choir - under the enormously assured and flexible baton of Maxime Pascal - couldn’t have given better support.

It’s rare you hear any opera where there are no weak links - but this performance of Donnerstag aus Licht was pretty faultless on multiple levels. So much of this had to do with the enormous clarity of the music we heard and not the obfuscation of a complex direction. What Benjamin Lazar advocated so strongly for is a design which had theatre, movement and lighting but allowed the conductor Maxime Pascal to illuminate the instrumental music, the tape sounds, the voices and soloists in a way which played to the strengths of Stockhausen’s sonorities. If the Royal Festival Hall can sometimes seem an opaque acoustic, here it was transformed into one which was rather revelatory. The ears were not just once or twice seduced by the mysterious effect of sound - it was a commonplace feature. This was an adventure, rather than simply a performance. Or, as a young man who happened to be passing through the terrace during the ‘Donnerstags-Abschied’ said to me: “It’s really trippy”. He really couldn’t have come up with a better description of what Stockhausen is all about and what this completely memorable evening so amply demonstrated.

Stockhausen: Cosmic Prophet continues on 1st - 2nd June 2019, Southbank Centre

Marc Bridle

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Léa Trommenschlager (soprano, Eve Act 1), Elise Chauvin (soprano, Eve Act 3), Hubert Mayer (tenor, Michael Act 1), Safir Behloul (tenor, Michael Act 3), Damien Pass (bass, Lucifer), Dancers (Emmanuelle Grach - Michael, Suzanne Meyer - Eve, Jamil Attar - Lucifer; Maxime Pascal (conductor), Christophe Naillet (lighting design), Florent Derex (sound projection), Augustin Muller (computer music design), Yann Chapotel (video design, Alice Caubit (clarinet, clownesque swallow Act 2), Ghislain Roffat (clarinet/basset horn, clownesque swallow Act 2), Iris Zerdoud Eve (basset horn), Henri Deléger (trumpet, Michael), Mathieu Adam (trombone, Lucifer), Alphonse Cémin (Michael's accompanist) Simon Guidicelli (double bass, Doctor Act 1), Le Balcon, London Sinfonietta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, New London Chamber Choir.

Royal Festival Hall, London: 21st May 2019.

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