Totally absorbing: sex, blasphemy and annihilation in Francesconi’s La Scala Quartett

ItalyItaly Francesconi, Quartett: Soloists, Teatro alla Scala Chorus & Orchestra / Maxime Pascal (conductor), Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 19.10.2019. (RP)

Allison Cook (Marquise de Merteuil) and Robin Adams (Vicomte de Valmont)
© Rudy Amisano

Director – Alex Ollé/La Fura dels Baus
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Lluc Castells
Lighting – Marco Filibeck
Video – Franc Aleu
IRCAM Computer Music Production – Serge Lemouton
IRCAM Sound Engineer – Luca Bagnoli

Marquise de Merteuil – Allison Cook
Vicomte de Valmont – Robin Adams

It is not as if he didn’t give everyone a heads-up. Luca Francesconi’s advisory warning for Quartett proclaimed it ‘a violent, blasphemous opera made up of raw sexual instincts and total absence of compassion. The only two characters on stage are the personification of cynicism; they have vowed never to love again’. The story, however, is familiar to many in its original version, the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782; the 1988 Hollywood version; or perhaps even American composer Conrad Susa’s opera, which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 1994.

As his source, Francesconi looked to Heiner Müller’s play Quartet, a bit more raw and, perhaps, graphic than the original novel, but the gist is the same. Rather than an exchange of letters between jaded aristocrats, Quartett is a brawl between two modern-day libertines, as willing to annihilate themselves as they are to destroy Madame Tourvel, a woman not only married but apparently faithful to her husband, or the virginal Volange, fresh from the convent.

An obvious parallel is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although in both glamour and viciousness Allison Cook’s Marquise de Merteuil and the seedy, virile Robin Adams as the Vicomte de Valmont leave Elizabeth Taylor’s frumpy, vituperative Martha and Richard Burton’s frustrated academic George in the dust. The stakes are higher too, as George escapes with his life. Valmont doesn’t.

Alex Ollé’s staging is provocative, some might say pornographic, even though there is no nudity to speak of, unless you count Adams naked from the waist up. Setting the story in the present day, devoid of period costumes and lacking the aristocratic environs of the Ancien Régime, strips away the gauze of history, nostalgia and refinement that can provide a comforting distance in other adaptions of Les Liaisons dangereuses. There are no such illusions in Ollé’s staging, especially the brutal anal rape of Volange, in role-play gone off track.

The drama takes place entirely in a rectangular box suspended in midair by what appeared to be hundreds of small cables radiating from it, as much a screen or even a window as a stage. It forces the audience to watch Merteuil and Valmont do battle. Even the videos are not a distraction, as Ollé employs them to establish location (presumably an elegant apartment in Paris), and to depict images called for in the script (the parade of young buttocks which supposedly confronts us daily with our mortality) and mobs of people. Oversized footage of Merteuil and Valmont observing their own stage counterparts in verbal and physical combat adds an eerie, voyeuristic touch. A recurring image is of a stone wall being ripped asunder and rebuilt. It ultimately comes crumbling down as Merteuil destroys the room after she has poisoned Valmont.

As for the music, the red flags must have gone up for some when they read that Francesconi was a student of Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. This is the real stuff: atonality, synthesizers and computers, with the occasional melody piercing through the complex sonorities. Francesconi immerses the audience in a surround-sound experience with speakers throughout the theater. For this production, there was a small orchestra in the pit and a large orchestra and chorus recorded and played through the speakers, a concept the composer refers to as ‘out there’. It is music that defies description and exists to be experienced live.

With sound literally bouncing off the walls, Maxime Pascal’s role was as much traffic cop as conductor. Pascal’s commitment to and passion for music of the present day is clear. All aspects of the performance were perfectly calibrated, and order was maintained. Equally impressive was the orchestra’s technical prowess and musicality in playing Francesconi’s score.

Cook and Adams reprised the roles that they created at Quartett’s 2011 La Scala premiere. They delivered the acid-tongued repartee tinged with a certain ennui, for they must reconcile their atrocious appetites with the decay of the body, and only innocent victims now fuel their fantasies. Nonetheless, they never fell short of vicious. Vocally, they were just as fearless, and somehow the beauty of their voices managed to pierce through the din of battle. Taking their bows, they were light and giddy, or maybe hysterical. Who knows?

About halfway through the opera, which runs around 90 minutes, I noticed that my pulse was racing. Undoubtedly Quartett is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was totally engrossed by it. And should one feel that they transgressed by enjoying it a bit too much, do as the virtuous Madame Tourvel and seek absolution from the church for transgressions real or otherwise

Rick Perdian