After opening with Ben Frost's critically mauled adaptation of Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, the ROH brings its 2013/14 season of operas in the Linbury Theatre to a triumphant close. Luca Francesconi's Quartett is a triumph, an intricately crafted work which would reward multiple viewings and listenings. It is certainly a work which should become a staple of the contemporary opera circuit, and suggests that the composer's full-scale opera for the company in 2020 will be unmissable.
Based on Heiner Müller's play of the same name (which is in turn based on Laclos' epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangerueses), Quartett features just two characters. Trapped in a bunker after the Third World War, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil enact eighteenth-century aristocratic seduction rituals in order to pass time, becoming increasingly entangled within a web of cruelty. Although the basis of the work may be unpleasant, it is far from heartless: between the manipulative and often violent role-plays are moments of reflection, with the characters' inner monologues lending them a sense of vulnerability. Francesconi's libretto combines poetic contemplation with wordplay (most notably in the episode where Valmont seduces Merteuil's devout niece, with blatant euphemistic allusions to her convent background) and wit, producing a work which entertains, invites reflection, and ultimately challenges the audience.
The oppressive black box of the Linbury Theatre is the perfect space for Quartett's claustrophobic drama. The auditorium was divided into two, placing the stage (a desolate vision of concrete, bottles and bare lightbulbs) and pit between two blocks of tiered seating. This added an extra dimension to the production: not only did the audience occupy a voyeuristic perspective of the action on stage, but also on one another. With the Marquise shining a torch into the audience and both characters directly addressing those watching, the fourth wall was shattered. One could not help but be drawn into the opera with a sense of disgusted fascination.
It is odd that Francesconi's name is not better known on these shores. Boasting an impressive pedigree (having studied with Stockhausen, Corghi and Berio), his works have been lauded across Europe; indeed, Quartett won the Franco Abbiati Critics' Prize for Best New Work in 2011. His musical language embraces a wide range of influences from jazz to folk, combining them with an interest in electronics (Francesconi founded AGON, a research centre for music technology based in Milan, in 1990). The score for Quartett is broad in scope, encompassing allusions to aristocratic dances and Berg's Lulu to guitar serenades and passages reminiscent of the sinister Nachtmusik from Mahler 7. Ominous clicking sounds and guttural brass are juxtaposed with with glockenspiel-dominated dream music: this particular soundworld is all the more devastating, given the depraved nature of the pair's game of make-believe. These extremes are bound together by Francesconi's sensuous orchestration, rendered with great subtlety and style by the London Sinfonietta. Andrew Gorlay highlighted moments of intimacy and vertiginous despair alike, with the tension only sagging around the middle of the opera; however, this can be attributed to the interludes, which loosened the otherwise taut structure.
The Sinfonietta were supplemented by electronically treated recordings (the work of IRCAM-based Serge Lemouton) for what was billed as the ROH's biggest and most ambitious sound design. From the ambient noises of the opening to the nightmarish screaming sounds of the later orchestral interludes, the electronic dimension of the piece helped to create a sonic envelope that enclosed the audience within the characters' disturbing world. These interludes featured films by Ravi Deepres, with scuttling beetles and flitting moths presented as if viewed through a microscope. The scientific perspective only added to the sense that we were observing the characters on stage with a sense of detached curiosity, furthering the audience's sense of discomfort.
As Valmont and the Marquise play out the various seductions, their own subjectivities begin to disintegrate. Each takes on a minimum of five roles, requiring the two leads to be skilled actors as well as possessing a chameleon-like ability to embody the characters vocally. Luckily, the pairing on the first night ticked both boxes. Kirstin Chávez was a stunning Marquise, poised yet with a hint of vulnerability. Leigh Melrose was her polar opposite, boldly painting his roles with a formidably powerful voice (although occasionally overacting). Both singers took the advantage to showcase the capabilities of their voices: Chávez's plummy lower range was a particular strength, while Melrose's Italianate arioso introduced a rare moment of cantabile lyricism.
It may not make for comfortable viewing, but this is an excellent production of a rich and thought-provoking work. A must-see.
By Katy Wright
Photos: Royal Opera