The American première of Luca Francesconi´s "Quartett" at the Colón is certainly controversial. Most people will agree that the presentation by Àlex Ollé (from La Fura dels Baus) is an asset, but many will feel that the text reaches a level of combined degradation, obscenity and blasphemy such as never before has been seen at this theatre.
I can mention earlier operas that provoked the senses of the audience: Richard Strauss´ "Salome", Berg´s "Lulu", Prokofiev´s "The Angel of Fire" (which will be staged this season), Leo Maslíah´s "Maldoror", Weill´s "The Ascent and Fall of the City of Mahagonny". However, the sheer crudeness of the language (even more explicit in the translation into Spanish by Mónica Zaionz) and of the subject matter go way beyond what opera audiences have heard before.
Some facts before I go further. Choderlos de Laclos wrote his epistolar novel "Les liaisons dangereuses" in 1782 but it was only published in 1796 : I interpret this as a signal that its portrait of the depraved cynicism of two aristocrats wasn´t tolerated by Louis XVI´s censure but after the Revolution it was welcomed.
Roger Vadim, the discoverer of Brigitte Bardot, was understandably interested in the subject and made a film with Gérard Philipe as Valmont. Later, Christopher Hampton wrote the script for Stephen Frears´ famous film with Malkovich, Close and Pfeiffer. And Milos Forman filmed "Valmont".
Heiner Müller is considered an important German playright (1929-95); his re-interpretations of Shakespeare include "Hamlet Machine", seen in our city. "Quartett" was written in 1982 and is an adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos´ novel in starkly modern terms. Luca Francesconi is author of both the libretto and the music of his curiously named "epic opera"(why? there´s nothing epic in it). And he decided to write it in English, not Italian nor German, I don´t know why, especially considering that it was commissioned by Milan´s La Scala.
According to Müller, the action occurs at a salon prior to the French Revolution and, reflecting his black pessimism, a bunker after World War III. There are thirteen scenes in a continuous 80-minute act; the first twelve between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount Valmont; the last, with no words, is only acted by Merteuil after Valmont´s death, provoked by the poisoned wine given to him by the Marquise. Here she follows words included in "Machine Hamlet", where she tears apart her prison-house, and surrealistically bloodies herself with her own heart.
In the first five scenes the two libertines become increasingly vicious in their words; from scenes six to eight there´s an inversion of roles: she acts as Valmont seducing Madame de Tourvel (Valmont!); scene nine is an interlude that finds the two of them vacillating; in scene ten Merteuil takes the part of the virgin Volanges, possessed by Valmont; in scene eleven they are again themselves; and in twelve Valmont acts as Tourvel and Merteuil poisons him.
Francesconi is a resourceful composer who has written numerous operas. In "Quartett" there are only two singers playing the four roles. There is a pit chamber orchestra of seventeen players (called the "IN orchestra") plus a big one ("OUT" orchestra) accompanied by a wordless mixed choir except for a final phrase in German: "now we are alone, cancer, my love". And all this mixed with electronic music. The solo singers are amplified for they couldn´t be heard otherwise.
The protagonists´ music is more accessible, generally in a traditional "arioso" style, and they even sing a stylised waltz. There are some spoken words, but mostly it is straightforward singing. Although there is a superabundance of effects, they are always skillful.
The Müller play was offered three times in Buenos Aires, staged by Szuchmacher and Suárez Marzal, but I couldn´t see it. On the basis of the Francesconi libretto, well written in English, I find it a continuous appellation to the baser instincts, accenting all that is disgusting about our flesh and with numerous intimations of death. And there´s not a whit of elegance such as I found in Frears´ film, which means that I much prefer Choderlos de Laclos and Hampton.
Enthusiastic kudos to the singers: I found them splendid. Mezzosoprano Allison Cook carries all before her: magnetic presence, great acting ability and a strong dramatic voice handled with ease, except for a bit more vibrato than required. Robin Adams is a firm baritone very professional both in the singing and in his involved, powerful acting. We hate them but we admire them as well.
Brad Lubman seemed to me a very competent conductor, coordinating the whole thing coherently and with a feeling for sound. In the performance I saw last Friday there were a few minutes of suspense, for at the start -and twice- the electronic music refused to function; but it was solved and all was well. By the way, the OUT music was pre-recorded and came from La Scala production.
This time Ollé was in his element, after his nasty Verdi "Un ballo in maschera". The room was a cube suspended in the air (stage designer, Alfons Flores). The producer handled his actor-singers well, avoiding too explicit sexual scenes but leaving no doubt about their perverse natures. The clothes for her (Lluc Castells) were attractive but his were nondescript. There was imaginative and beautiful lighting (Marco Filibeck) and very interesting projections by Franc Aleu (city, sea, the characters).
For Buenos Aires Herald