Intrepid Band of Artists Bring Enlightenment and Much Else to Stockhausen’s Donnerstag

FranceFrance Stockhausen, Donnerstag: Soloists, Le jeune chœur de paris (chorus director: Richard Wilberforce), Strings of the Conservatoire à Royonnement Régional de Paris, Orchestre Le Balcon, Orchestra Impromptu / Maxime Pascal (conductor). Salle Favart, Paris, 17.11.2018. (MB)

Stockhausen’s Donnerstag (c) Vincent Pontet

Staging – Benjamin Lazar
Scenography and costumes – Adeline Caron
Lighting – Christophe Naillet
Video creation – Yann Chapotel
Sound projection – Florent Derex
Computer realisation – Augustin Muller

Michael (tenor) – Damien Bigourdan (Act I), Safir Behloul (Act II)
Michael (trumpet) – Henri Deléger
Michael (dancer) – Emmanuelle Grach
Eva (soprano) – Léa Trommenschlager (Act I), Elise Chauvin (Act II)
Eva (basset horn) – Iris Zerdoud
Eva (dancer) – Suzanne Meyer
Luzifer (bass) – Damien Pass
Luzifer (trombone) – Mathieu Adam
Luzifer (dancer) – Jamil Attar
Michael’s accompanist (piano) – Alphonse Cemin
Swallow Clowns (clarinets) – Alice Caubit, Ghislain Roffat
Two Youths (saxophones) – Eléonore Brundell
Old Woman – Bernadette Le Saché
Messenger – Antoine Amariutei
Nurses – Maxime Morel, Alphonse Cemin
Doctor – Simon Guidicelli
Child Michael – Ilion Thierrée

What a year it has been for Karlheinz Stockhausen. The ninety-year-old composer from Sirius seems in this, the year of his ninetieth birthday celebrations, to be as strongly with us as ever. Berlin’s annual Musikfest did him proud with four concerts, three of which I was privileged to attend. The Paris-based orchestra Le Balcon has, under the direction of Maxime Pascal, launched a series of his complete Licht operas, starting here with the French premiere of Donnerstag in a co-production between the Opéra Comique, Le Balcon, and the Opéra national de Bordeaux. It is planned to reach its conclusion in 2024. On the evidence of this performance – and indeed of Benjamin Lazar’s production – it will, from beginning to end, prove an absolute must for anyone with a remotely serious interest in opera.

Donnerstag may come fourth in the seven days of creation – and thus be expected take that place in a full ‘cycle’, if we must use the confusing, circular term. It was written first, though (give or take a single scene from Dienstag) and to my mind benefits – at the very least, is done no harm – from being placed first like this. At the opening of the treatment of Licht in his book on Stockhausen’s music, Robin Maconie writes: ‘As the first completed opera of LICHT, the day in which, drawing on his own life experiences, the composer lays out his philosophical agenda for the entire week, Donnerstag aus LICHT is at once the most personal in its declarations and the most troubling and controversial in its ethical and spiritual implications. In as much as the opera has a theme, the theme is Kindheit: education, upbringing, self-determination, and spiritual growth.’ Much of that came through strongly – in both musical and dramatic fashion. Indeed, as one would expect in so post-Wagnerian a work, the distinction made no sense. What certainly made an impression – ‘sense’ will be in the eyes and ears of the beholders, the listeners – was the overriding idea, modernist (?) fragmentary tendencies notwithstanding, of self-formation, of a Bildung that is, has been, and, doubtless ever shall be both classical and anything but.

There was, perhaps, something necessarily didactic to the first act. (I think one may, even should, accept a degree of essentialism when it comes to Stockhausen. Can one really fail to do so in the German tradition of which he is unquestionably part?) So it felt, at any rate, to me. Following our call to observance in a very particular version of ‘Donnerstags-Gruss’, heard throughout the house but faintly, impinging upon our consciousness, almost switching us or our receptivity on, the first act proceeded almost as if it were a director’s metatheatrical intervention, drawing upon the composer’s biography to elucidate. Except, of course, and with every respect to Lazar’s fine work, the director in that sense remained Stockhausen himself. We were free to draw whatever lessons we wished – none, I suppose, should we not have wished to do so – from Michael’s experience and education, his navigation of boundaries between his father’s (militaristic yet also theatrical) example and his mother’s (musical, carnal, and also theatrical).

Michael’s coming of age, the loss of his mother and brother, was Stockhausen’s but not his: it was, in Orphic tradition, that of music too. In Wagner’s tradition, moreover, it was that of art as opposed to different arts: the Gesamtkunstwerk, if you will, a term often more suited to Wagner’s successors (and indeed to his predecessors’ Romantic aspirations) than to his own dramas and theories. Gesture in the traditional form of dance – as opposed to the broader Wagnerian transformation into staging and/or production – played here and elsewhere not only a crucial role but a role that questions and unifies, just as does singing, just as does instrumental performance. We see, hear, think of, even dream the relationships between these outstanding performers of different types. (Or are they different? Is that but our fragmented fantasy?) When Mondeva, whatever her relationship to mother Eva, showed her talons, sounded her basset horn, yielded to the young Siegfried (sorry, Michael), the hallowed German Romantic forest or memories thereof came back to life – albeit here subtly, without a hint of bad nineteenth- or twentieth-century to them. No wonder, then, he proceeded to pass his exams with flying colours. A musician had been dreamed, formed, made incarnate.

The instrumental fantasy of the second act, ‘Michaels Reise um die Erde’, as much perhaps a concerto for orchestra as for solo trumpeter (here the outstanding Henri Deléger), offered in many ways the greatest of contrasts. Having been ‘educated’, were we now to ‘enjoy’ – to tour the world, our worlds, other worlds (dramatic, galactic, etc.)? Yes, but not only yes. For the strange rhymes, the peculiar memories and remembrances, of the first act had formed us. There is nothing random, nothing arbitrary to Stockhausen – no more here in Licht than in any work of so-called ‘total serialism’. The composer’s formulae were doing their work, guiding us, in a total(itarian) way serving very much to remind us of his lineage. Michael’s instrumental companions, antagonists, interlocutors, guided yet liberated by Pascal, by Lazar, and – you have guessed it – by Stockhausen, played games with themselves, with us, dreamed of themselves, of others, most likely of us.

For this, whether one likes it or no, is a world of mysticism: a mysticism prepared and finally explicit in the third act, in a ‘return’ that, like all returns, is as much concerned with what is new as with what is old. (‘Sonate, que veux-me tu?’ That, among many other things.) Choirs as celestial as those in Bach, theology as heretical as in Wagner and as unanswerable as in Messiaen (and Bach!), musical virtuosity, theatrical accomplishment: those and so much more, inviting yet rejecting such easy comparisons, recreated a world we both knew and did not. And, of course, they (re-)invited in our constant companion(s), Luzifer – again, of song, of instrument (trombone), of dance. There was victory, but at what cost? There were rejoicing and certainty – again, at what cost? This was the very stuff of drama as much as of ritual, of fantasy as much as of truth, of heroic dissent as much as harmonious union. Stockhausen was reborn both our eyes and ears.

I have, I confess, grown a little impatient with armchair listeners continuing to peddle the hackneyed line that the Stockhausen of Licht onwards demonstrated a sad, megalomaniacal decline, whilst acknowledging when pressed that they have never actually attended a performance of the Licht operas. There may be good reason for their not having done so; it does not, however, follow that such critics can possibly in a position to dismiss the works. No more than any other opera – rather less than many in the so-called ‘repertoire’ – should any of these works be considered as a ‘purely musical’ work. It may or may not be revealing simply to listen, simply to read the score. To give these extraordinary works a proper chance, though, one must engage theatrically with them. In turn, we need (excellent) performances and stagings to do so. For that, and for much else, we should be grateful indeed to the Opéra Comique and this intrepid band of artists. No one there will forget this, nor them, in a hurry.

Such was not the least of the messages one might have taken, at the close, from the boy Michael learning from his mature selves and the rest of the heavenly cosmos, what the past, present, and future might entail. Enlightenment, Licht as well as Bildung, was seen as well as heard before our eyes, ears, and much else. I have concentrated here far more on the totality, on the overall ‘effect’, rather than on individual contributions; I hope that will not be taken amiss, as a failure to acknowledge their generally outstanding quality. Such was the collegial commitment of all concerned – the audience included, if the wild enthusiasm of its final reception were anything to go by. I have no doubt that it was. Stockhausen, ultimately, tends no more to provoke doubts than Bach. He is what he is – and this was what it was, something quite out of the ordinary. As we retreated into the Place Boieldieu for an ‘invisible’ musical farewell that spoke or rather sang as much of Gabrieli as new galaxies, that was something we simply, or not so simply, knew. Not entirely unlike the composer into whose cult we had been (re)admitted.

Mark Berry

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