Immersive Installation: Quartett at the Theater Dortmund

Francesconi – Quartett

Marquise de Merteuil – Allison Cook
Vicomte de Valmont – Christian Bowers

Dortmunder Philharmoniker / Philipp Armbruster.
Stage director – Ingo Kerkhof

Theater Dortmund, Dortmund, Germany.  Saturday, April 27th, 2019.

Since its premiere at the Scala back in 2011, Francesconi’s Quartett has become something of a repertoire staple, with multiple productions in theatres including the Liceu, the London Royal Opera and the Colón in Buenos Aires.  These performances at the Theater Dortmund marked the first German performances of the work.  Tonight also marked my first visit to this attractive, modern theatre.  It’s clearly a house with a great sense of ambition and a willingness to look beyond the kind of programming that gives us wall-to-wall Traviatas that some other theatres subject us to.   Unfortunately, tonight wasn’t particularly well attended and there was a significant number of early departures during the course of the eighty-minute running time.  Still, it’s a fine place to see a show – sightlines are excellent and the seats comfortable.  The coat check is self-service and requires a 10 euro cent coin.

Photo: © Thomas Jauk

Quartett is a highly ambitious piece, one that even tries to redefine what opera is, using technology to create a truly twenty-first century art form.  The two singers on stage, a mezzo playing the Marquise de Merteuil, and a baritone playing the Vicomte de Valmont, are amplified, their vocals occasionally enhanced with electronic sound effects.  The small orchestra in the pit is similarly enhanced with a pre-recorded large orchestra and chorus.  The latter at times adding a halo to the sound, at others seeming to amplify it, making us question what was in the room and what was without.  The plot, an English setting with a libretto by Francesconi himself of Heiner Müller’s play, focused attention on a pair of lovers, both coming to terms with each other, as well as with those lovers they had had before.

The staging was entrusted to Ingo Kerkhof.  As the action took place at the front, within the proscenium, the audience was very much put into the position of voyeur – watching the action, but not necessarily part of it.  Indeed, there was a distance between the two protagonists who rarely, if ever, looked at each other and likewise rarely, if ever, seemed to touch with any tenderness.  This, combined with the quite remarkable range of acoustic sound effects (the work of IRCAM), made for what was an interesting, immersive experience.  It felt that rather than watching two people work through their sexual history, and how they relate to each other, instead, we were observers to what felt like an immersive art installation.  This was compounded by the fact that it felt that Allison Cook’s Marquise de Merteuil wasn’t actually singing in English.  Her diction was so indistinct that I had to refer to the German surtitles to establish what the series of apparently random phonemes actually meant.

Photo: © Thomas Jauk

Cook is an experienced exponent of the role.  Her full, fruity mezzo clearly has the measure of the wide tessitura, handling the awkward register leaps with ease.  Yet sadly her singing and interpretation were robbed of their impact, simply because it was so hard to discern any words.  Christian Bowers brought a warm and attractive baritone to his role.  He also coped easily with the tessitura, often moving into an easy and rounded falsetto.  His diction was generally clearer, but again, there were moments where the text could have been more distinct.  I did wonder, whether in both cases, there might have been issues with the amplification and sound design, and whether the live voices might have needed to have been slightly more forward in the sound balance.

Philipp Armbruster marshalled the disparate forces with ease.  His reading felt utterly natural, the pre-recorded sound feeling very much an organic part of what we heard from the pit and the stage.  The instrumentalists of the Dortmunder Philharmoniker played with a commanding understanding of the score, bringing out a wealth of instrumental colour.  Francesconi really is a master of orchestration, from the bright twinkling of piccolo and celesta, or the earthy combination of low brass and electronics.  Clearly, the house had given the work precisely the rehearsal time it needed.

Photo: © Thomas Jauk

This was a most interesting experience.  It genuinely felt like an immersive, sonic installation, one that beguiled the ear and challenged one’s sense of space.  And yet, based on tonight’s performance, it left me not quite convinced by the work itself.  It felt very much like a piece that was technically seriously impressive, but that lacked clear character development.  How much of that was due to the diction issues, and how much to the piece itself, is hard to discern on a first hearing.  It was certainly a stimulating evening and was well received by those who made it to the end.

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