Friday, 8 June 2012

Quartett à deux

Last Friday I was at the Wiener Festwochen’s annual contemporary opera, Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, and wrote about it for Bachtrack. More thoughts about this Liaisons dangereuses adaptation and La Scala co-production after the jump.

Quartett is a work which would appear to throw into question the heuristic value of comparing Sciarrino as Nono Nachfolger, arguably the Nono Nachfolger, to Francesconi as Berio Nachfolger: its mostly non-referential fragmentariness can be found in Francesconi’s previous writing (that is to say the stuff I know, which is a fair amount if not everything), but typically as one device among many in a forma formans/form-as-experience dialectic.* (I can be a good Berian and avoid the c-word as Franscesconi’s aesthetic is not quite as compendious). Quartett, in contrast to, say, the trumpet concerto ‘Hard Pace’ or the third and fourth string quartets, is a rather more closed, self-generative world – purely a ‘compulsory show’, one might say – in which Lulu is quoted only insofar as we may notice it is being misquoted (the postmodern allusion-as-illusion trope, which presumably Francesconi couldn’t resist, occurs just the once more with a fleeting Salome reference on Valmont’s words ‘I will dance for you’).

But the games of Dangerous Liaisons require a different sort of play, and while this appears to be where the recourse to the arbitrary abstraction of a more overtly ‘modernist’ idiom comes from, the writing seemed rather tame for a Heiner Müller text. This may sound like special pleading for the Frankenserialists and other modernist straw men of tracts like ‘Terminal Prestige’, but for most of the evening all I could think of was what a great James Clarke opera this would make. And yet – this is Müller, after all – a freewheeling, decentred musical language could have worked equally well here. As Jonathan Kalb, author of The Theater of Heiner Müller, writes, ‘Quartet was written in a hyper-concentrated, freeze-dried prose that doesn’t so much dissolve as explode in the fluid of production.’ This is writing for which we have a number of musical styles, and I hope I imply here that some kind of aesthetic choice must be made and stuck with, possibly uncompromisingly, since this score is doomed by its equivocation; insofar as Francesconi’s prettified free atonality registers it generally does so as incidental music obscuring a classic text.

Such redundancy was not to be found in the staging by La Fura dels Baus’ Àlex Ollé, which concerned itself with the loss of identity as undesirable outcome of the eros/power conflict (Merteuil: ‘You’re falling apart, Valmont. You’re becoming sensitive’). Blocking in the claustrophobic box, stark images, and Personenregie were all quite incisive here; identity reversal (ostensibly to allow for the other characters to ‘appear’; Müller introduces this gradually for it to culminate in what Kalb rightly describes as a coup de théâtre) was done straight but effectively. As I experienced last year, for Beat Furrer’s Wüstenbuch, Halle E of the Museumsquartier continues to be a miserable space to hear an opera; here’s hoping that with the backstage improvements at the Theater an der Wien, the new Hinterhäuser administration can get contemporary opera moved there.

*Cursory articulation of a huge Berio point, but here goes: pieces like Nones aside, structural organization is less directed towards an unifying enactment of form-as-object (forma formata) than form somehow forming itself anti-schematically. (N.b. I use these Latin terms as shorthand as contemporary analytical terms would make this much more complicated, as would the simplistic ‘organic’, in its own way.) But what is being structurally organized? Well, much of the time in Berio, these linear and non-linear layers of what I will analytically term ‘stuff’, which may be perceived somewhat diagrammatically as collage. Amid the density of things remembered, transcribed, transformed, or simply becoming music, form is whatever we choose to signify and construct from the processes we hear. Ways in which these two ways of conceptualizing form might be set against each other or reconciled is one of the many dialectics which make the work of Berio and his stylistic followers so interesting.

Image credit: Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

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