Solitary Existence: Fin de partie at the Teatro alla Scala

Kurtág – Fin de partie

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Leigh Melrose
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortellazzi

Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Markus Stenz.
Stage director – Pierre Audi.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Saturday, November 24th, 2018.

In life, it can be quite tempting to think that there’s no more time to do any of those things that one dreams of but never got around to.  Perhaps, one should take inspiration from György Kurtág who, at the age of 92, completed his first opera, Fin de partie.  A co-commission between the Teatro alla Scala and De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, the premiere earlier this month was one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year.  I caught the sixth performance of the run.  The Scala has repeatedly proven itself as dedicated to providing the very best circumstances for the music of today to be premiered.  Tonight’s performance had been exceptionally well prepared.  The house also makes available on its website the full libretto, as well as a selection of essays, to allow spectators to inform themselves in advance of attending the show.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Kurtág has set Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play in its entirety.  In a stimulating note in the extensive program book, tonight’s stage director, Pierre Audi, discusses the difficulty of setting a play in which the use of language itself is so musical.  Indeed, he writes that Beckett himself was reluctant to have his plays set to music.  What Kurtág creates is not necessarily an opera in a conventional sense.  Rather, he gives us a play set to music, the only sign of operatic convention is the repetition of lines here and there.  Instead, he gives us a work that amplifies the play.  The orchestration is large and diverse.  The presence of a piano, peppery cimbalom, tangy accordion, raspy brass and silky strings – all create a soundworld of ravishing transparency.  Despite the large forces, they are used with the utmost delicacy with few, if any, tuttis.  In turn, that delicacy of scoring allows the cast to get the words across with the utmost clarity, rendering the seat-back titles unnecessary.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Indeed, it was sung in excellent French.  The word setting was natural.  Although Kurtág took the singers to the extremities of their ranges in places, it all sounded eminently singable – no awkward leaps between the registers for instance.  There’s one single moment in which the tempo picks up, but otherwise the orchestral contribution provides what struck me as being both punctuation and sonic enhancement to the vocal line.  There’s a lyricism to the vocal lines, a yearning, a pulling away from the sparseness of the textures underneath.  It’s a piece that exists in its own space and time, bringing home the isolation of four people who co-exist yet, at the same token, seem unaware of each other.  Fragments of conventional melody remind us there’s a world beyond, that the four have memories of – that walk on the banks of the ‘lac de Côme’ for instance – but it remains beyond reach, perceptible yet imperceptible.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Audi’s staging felt organically connected to Kurtág’s music and Beckett’s words.  The bareness of the setting – a house within a house within a house, two poubelles against the wall, Hamm’s wheelchair the only furniture.  With Hamm singing from his wheelchair and Nagg and Nell from their poubelles, this put a lot of pressure on the singers to hold the audience’s attention.  They succeeded precisely through that combination of the clarity of the text and a constantly developing and mesmerizing musical development.  The Scala band brought out so many colours in the orchestration and Markus Stenz always ensured that the text could come across with the utmost clarity.  They played exceptionally well for him.  Other than a couple of slight brass slips, their playing during the entire two-and-a-quarter-hour running time was remarkable.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

It was also very well sung by the quartet of principals.  Frode Olsen had a massive assignment as Hamm.  On stage almost throughout, he gave us an enormous assumption of an outsize character.  The role takes him low into his bass.  The tone has dried out somewhat but still remains very full at the bottom.  He was absolutely fearless and tireless throughout.  Leigh Melrose gave us a concentrated burst of sound in the final scene, the voice absolutely firm with a touch of metal at the core.  His French was good but the consonants sounded a bit Anglophone.  Nevertheless, the firmness of the tone gave much pleasure.  Hilary Summers offered us some very impressive, floated high singing, fading to almost nothingness.  The pure tone of her contralto seemed at one with the palette of instrumental colour emerging from the pit.  Leonardo Cortellazzi was most impressive.  His bright, well-placed and forward tenor offered limpid tone that carried well throughout the house.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Kurtág’s Fin de partie is a fascinating work.  It exists and shimmers in the room and stays in the mind a long time after the first listen.  It’s static yet utterly compelling.  Compelling, because it succeeds in creating and existing in its own space and time.  Indeed, in a way, it’s actually quite Wagnerian in its achievement because it makes us forget about conventional minutes and hours and instead, brings to life a group of individuals who are effectively talking to themselves while talking to each other.  It’s alive to the humour but also the loneliness of the text.  Tonight, we were given a performance at the highest level and quality.  A work most certainly worth discovering and extremely warmly received by the Scala public.

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