The Southbank Centre Presents Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stockhausen, Donnerstag aus Licht: Soloists, Le Balcon, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, New London Chamber Choir, London Sinfonietta / Maxime Pascal (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 22.5.2019. (CC)

Henri Deléger, (Michael, trumpet), Emmannuelle Grach (Michael, dancer)
and Safir Behloul (Michael in Act III, tenor) (c) Tristram Kenton

Director – Benjamin Lazar
Stage & Set Designs – Adeline Caron
Sound Projection – Florent Derex
Computer Music Design – Augustin Muller
Video – Yann Chapotel
Lighting – Christophe Naillet

Michael – Henri Deléger (trumpet); Hubert Mayer (tenor, Act I); Safir Behloul (tenor, Act III); Emmanuelle Grach (dancer)
Eve – Iris Zerdoud (basset horn); Léa Trommenschlager (soprano, Act I); Elise Chauvin, (soprano, Act III); Suzanne Meyer (dancer)
Lucifer – Mathieu Adam (trombone); Damien Pass (bass); Jamil Attar (dancer)
Michael’s accompanist – Alphonse Cemin (piano)
Clownesque swallows – Alice Caubit (clarinet, Act II); Ghislain Roffat (clarinet & basset horn, Act II)
Michael’s Accompanist – Alphonse Cemin
Old Lady – Nomonde Mkwanzi

What a difference 33 – nearly 34 – years makes. The first-born of Stockhausen’s monumental Licht cycle of operas, Donnerstag was first performed, fully staged, in the UK in September 1985. Hearing it then, as a student, was life-changing. Here was a composer who thinks on a vast, post-Wagnerian canvas, communicating in a language that shouts the future at us (interestingly, like Wagner, Stockhausen likes to play with names: ‘Michael’, for example). The intention in the 1980’s, I believe, was to stage the entire cycle, comprising some 29 hours of music, but this was before the music’s time. It seemed the public just was not ready for it. Even within the span of one performance, it was a bit like Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, audience numbers progressively dwindling from act to act. But memories remain: the space-suited trumpeters of the Greeting; the toy tank and the hilarity it brought forth from the audience (and I seem to remember Stockhausen looking up and around, not entirely pleased) plus the astonishing virtuosity of Markus Stockhausen, who took the instrumental role of Michael.

A rather sparser production here, and no-one with the Stockhausen surname, or from the clan, in sight. What we got instead was a superbly realised interpretation of a masterpiece with minimal props, thanks to the vision of Benjamin Lazar. This performance was most noteworthy, perhaps, in musical terms for its overarching lyricism. The musicians came together to give a performance that seemed to arch across the hours, and then seem to stretch ever onwards, towards (one hopes) the next instalment.

The story is highly influenced by the Urantia book, a channelled/multi-author tome (no human author is mentioned) that speaks at length on religion, philosophy, God and indeed Jesus. Part of the celestial hierarchy is Michael, who incarnates on the Earth (= Urantia): in Urantia’s words,  ‘all these … personal traits of the Father can be better understood by observing them as they were revealed in the bestowal life of Michael, your Creator Son, while he was incarnated on Urantia’. (Michael is known as Michael of Nebadon in the original text, although parallels with the Archangel Michael seem clear, not least in the battles, given that the Archangel Michael of legend carries the Sword of Truth). This incarnating journey forms the basis of the second act, ‘Michaels Reise um die Erde’ (Michael’s Journey Round the Earth).

Stockhausen’s opera also, perhaps inevitably, references Sirius (‘Sirisu, swap your melody with me’ sings Michael at one point). The triumph of this realisation was that whether one buys into Stockhausen’s inks to Sirius or not, the work emerged as immensely satisfying both dramatically and musically.

Stockhausen uses a number of musical ‘formulas’ throughout his cycle, including a Super Formula over all of the Licht cycle; an evolved Leitmotif, one might say. Before the opera proper starts, there is that ‘Greeting’, performed on this occasion in the Clore Ballroom by the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble. Performed as a group (I seem to remember more spatial separation in the Covent Garden foyer?) they present the Michael Formula three times in three movements, referencing musics from big band to Balinese bells. How wonderful to see not only all seats taken but a crowd around the sides, too.

In the first act, ‘Michaels Jugend’ (Michael’s Youth) we meet the hero Michael and as the opera unfolds we find elements of Stockhausen’s own life intercutting the Urantia inspiration. A screen carries projections that comment on the ongoing story, or  reflect it in different ways – mobile drawings of swallows for the two trouble-making clarinettists onstage, the ‘clownesque swallows’ (Alice Caubit and Ghislain Roffat), for example – and also which tells us where we are in the structure. So it is that we see Michael’s mother taken off to a mental hospital; images of the war are frequent, not only in that toy tank. Like the other two major characters of Eve and Lucifer, Michael is represented in three ways: vocally; by an instrument; and by a dancer. The idea of the Trinity runs through many religions, not only Christianity, and in fact this triplicity of one energy is very clearly evident in the pagan idea of Hekate triformis, the three aspects of the liminal Goddess Hekate.  So it is that Michael was represented by the trumpeter Henri Deléger, a player of ridiculous stamina (and whose confidence just grew and grew; in the earlier stages perhaps one hankered just a little for Markus Stockhausen’s clarion qualities), two tenors (one for Act I, one for Act III) and a dancer, Emmanuelle Grach (dressed as a boy). The first act is itself segmented into three (that triplicity again): ‘Michaels Jugend’ (Michael’s youth); ‘Kindheit’ (Childhood) and ‘Examen’ (Examination). Luzemon, a form of Lucifer, gives lessons in arithmetic and we hear something that recurs again and again: the counting up to ‘his’ number 13. Patriotic songs, remnants of a childhood in Nazi Germany (the uniforms and struggles seeming, here, to try to link Donnerstag with Wozzeck) all intermingle with Stockhausen’s characteristically uncompromising language. The demands made on the players and singers is remarkable: the trumpeter Michael has a belt which houses numerous mutes and he has to move actively around the stage whilst playing. The bass Damien Pass was simply stunning as Lucifer, his strong voice resonant and commanding (we are a long way away from the Netflix series here). His attendant instrument is the trombone; and the trombonist has to play on the floor, lying on his back at one point as well as, at another, tap-dancing while playing. Mathieu Adam was the superb virtuoso here, spitting Lucifer’s bile left, right and centre.

Michael’s encounter with ‘Mondeva’ (Moon-Eva) introduces the remarkable basset hornist Iris Zerdaud, seen here as a fathered hybrid creature (and also at one point memorably referred to as ‘Moon-Titmouse’); she teaches him her musical formula at this point and Stockhausen creates a musical equivalent of conjoining souls before that scene depicting her taken off to the mental hospital, where she dies. The Eve of the first act was the wonderful Lea Trommenschlager, Suzanne Meyer the fabulously fluent dancer. The final panel of the first act, ‘Examen’, is a depiction of an entrance examination of Michael into a conservatory (the jury is the Lucifer and Eva singers and dancers). The piano part here, brilliantly done by Alphonse Cemin, can be played independently as Klavierstück XII. The key to the piano  playing here was its variety of expression; which makes one wonder whether a new, more nuanced, dawn of Stockhausen interpretation may be dawning?

The dancers attending all three characters (Emmanuelle Grach, Suzanne Meyer, Jamil Attar) performed miracles of fluency. The real achievement here is that the player, singer and dancer of each character really did seem to originate from the same core energy.

The Act II journey round the earth is conceived as a staged trumpet concerto (this is where a large globe came in in the 1986 production). Here, the trumpet immediately does battle with the trombone, the movements incredibly physical while the players perform. A projection of a child playing with a globe reinforces the idea of this incarnational journey as the music takes Michael and his troupe through Cologne (again, an autobiographical reference), New York (more big band music), Bali, India (Michael’s solo), Central Africa (another duel, this time with the tuba initially, another instrumentalist called to play on his back). The mood changes halfway through to a love scene, though, as he hears Eva’s basset horn distantly in the form of Mondeva, leading to a sensual duet. The pair of clarinets dressed in concert attire is a recurring, fun image here, for whenever they appear, they cause chaos.

The climax of the opera is the final, two-scened Act. The overall act title is ‘Michaels Heimkehr’ (Michael’s Homecoming), subdivided into ‘Festival’ (around 45 minutes) and ‘Vision’ (half an hour, giving a positively Wagnerian duration). In ‘Festival’ we hear and see choirs (vividly dressed for the physically present singers, but there is an unseen choral element here, which can be performed separately and was indeed released as a compact disc, ‘Unsichtbare Chöre’). This music is heard very much in the background in the first act, but is more prominent in this final act, played back over eight groups of loudspeakers encircling the audience. The orchestral contribution in this act was superb, the orchestra split across the stage and around the back. The electronic realisation, too (Florent Derex and Augustin Muller) was beyond criticism on this occasion. Here, the voice of Eve (Elise Chauvin in this Act) was almost impossibly pure and beautiful. If the Lucifer of Damien Pass did seem more confident than the Michael of the final act, tenor Safir Behloul, it hardly made a dent in the dramatic impact.

In terms of the lyricism refereed to earlier, the climax of that element comes in the final scene, ‘Vision’, dominated by the three aspects of Michael. It was here that Behloul, the Michael singer in the final act, really came into his own, with parts of previous scenes projected on-screen.

The ovations for this performance spoke volumes about the impact this work had on all present; the ‘Farewell’ enabled the experience truly to linger on after the opera itself had concluded, perhaps doubling as an invitation tot the next opera. One can only dream … we know that Le Balcon will present Samstag in June this year at the Philharmonie in Paris. Maybe that dream is not so far out of reach …

Following on from this event, the Southbank Centre will be presenting a Stockhausen Weekend (Cosmic Prophet) which will include such seminal works as Kontakte, Zyklus ,Stimmung and Mantra and which will include a study day led by Robert Worby

Colin Clarke

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