Proms 2023: the premières (Part 4)

by 5:4

Some years ago I was at the Royal Opera House, watching and listening with a growing sense of disbelief and horror as a contemporary opera entirely failed to understand or meaningfully capture the source material upon which it was based. That was Thomas Adès’ wretched The Exterminating Angel, an embarrassingly inept attempt to bring to the stage Luis Buñuel’s incredibly strange and subtle 1962 film. i have to admit to feeling pretty similar while spending time with Fin de partie, György Kurtág‘s operatic rendering of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, given its first UK performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, and directed by Victoria Newlyn. i don’t feel the result is quite so egregious as with Adès, yet in some ways the project may actually be more fundamentally flawed. Buñuel’s movie has dialogue, lines that serve the unsettling narrative, and as such there’s no particular reason why those couldn’t be delivered in a different way and a different form, such as being sung. Whereas in Endgame, and a great deal of Beckett’s work, it seems to me that there’s an implied ‘music’ in the way his words want to be articulated, a certain kind of rhythm, timing and cadence that permeate its terse, motivic, circular dialogue. The result in the play is a quasi-monochromatic monotony that’s fascinating, hypnotic and horrifying.

All of which makes it tough if not impossible to engage with Kurtág’s approach to the material. His colourful, angular music turned Beckett’s unique palette and contour into something that by turns sounded too direct, too irrelevant or just plain arbitrary. Where the nature of the four characters emerges organically in the play, Kurtág often seemed to be overtly trying to force or depict them. There were times, such as the exchanges between Nagg and Nell in the trash cans, when the lyricism and pathos that Kurtág gave them seemed rather nice, tapping into something heartfelt in the midst of both real and figurative darkness (in the process making the most of Nell’s minimal agency and involvement in the story). But then we remember that this is Beckett, where a notion like ‘heartfelt’, while it certainly exists within Endgame, speaks with an altogether more elusive and, ultimately, more poignant implicit voice. The opera also had a tendency to exaggerate (one of the recurring problems with the Adès too), something again entirely at odds with the whole attitude of Beckett, made more problematic by Kurtág’s changeable, erratic, even spasmodic language, a world away from Beckett’s cool consistency. As a consequence, Fin de partie seemed to make minimal sense either as a rendering of Beckett or as an operatic narrative taken on its own terms, weirdly inconsistent and bafflingly obtuse all while seemingly trying to make the source material more direct and approachable.

Of the last few Proms premières, crammed into the festival’s last days, Sarah Rodgers‘s execrable Seascapes, given its first performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Anna-Maria Helsing, truly redefined the “bog” in bog-standard. No better than any half competent student composition (and not exactly treated to a strong performance either), the piece had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the sea, its vacuous stream of simpletonian wafflenoodle flowing precisely nowhere. James B. Wilson‘s 1922 – delayed from last year’s cancelled last night to this year’s – sought to pay homage to 100 years of the BBC. As such, his method seemed entirely appropriate, channelling the demonstrably conservative style of William Walton (often resembling the opening movement of the First Symphony) into five minutes of mindless, superficial prolefeed, a perfect encapsulation of everything the BBC represents, and everything the last night audience demands to hear.

Mercifully, there was one genuine highlight that set itself far beyond this abject closing mockery of unimagination. Clara, by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, given its UK première by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Domingo Hindoyan, sought to say something about the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann. It wasn’t always clear precisely what that something was, yet the way Ortiz said it was highly compelling. Sadly, the piece was let down by a lengthy, blandly gestural middle movement titled ‘My response’, which seemingly bore no relation at all to the four movements surrounding it. As for them, ‘Clara’ established a striking soundworld triggered by chiming chords, strands of oboe and rapid floridity. Whereupon the music became increasingly uncomfortable; string melodies spindled out but slip-slided downwards, becoming stuck in a descending trajectory, all that opening potential rendered moot (bringing to mind the inner conflict behind Clara’s well-known remark, “A women must not desire to compose”). ‘Robert’ answered this in a more expansive and more dissonant sequence that was grandiose but messy, lyrical but somewhat melancholic. It attained a kind of magical ethereality, either turning inward or becoming more faraway, sustained clusters and drones becoming a backdrop for the oboe, in an atmosphere that remained edgy, dark and unsettled.

Third movement ‘Robert’s unconscious’ opened this out further, the strings and winds taking on a fittingly contemplative tone in a place of mystery with apparently endless scope, occasionally struck by accents, causing a division between slow brass and chirpy winds. ‘Always Clara’ brought the work to an end with music that seemed to pick up where the sagging (self-?)defeat of the opening movement left off. Soft and muted, initially distant, a slow, yearning music materialised, growing in density and intensity, simple and complex simultaneously. Clara‘s conclusion could hardly have been more arresting and direct, falling back to a hovering suspension, embellished with the most delicate xylophone, periodically erupting in momentary bright incandescence.

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James S Bergin

Thank you for this informative post. Your comments are perceptive and indeed acerbic at times, and alas, reflect a lot of what I’m hearing in music today. I appreciate your inclusion of the video of the Ortiz piece, about which you were more positive. After all, it’s easy to offer negative criticism but putting the video up there give your readers a chance to hear what you heard and to come to their own conclusions (I did think that overall it was a most compelling and imaginative piece.) Thank you again.

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