Superb Parisian premiere of György Kurtág’s masterly first opera, Fin de partie

FranceFrance Kurtág, Fin de partie: Soloists, Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Markus Stenz (conductor). Palais Garnier, Paris, 30.4.2022. (MB)

Fin de Partie: Clov (l, Leigh Melrose) © Sebastien Mathé/ONP

Director – Pierre Audi
Designs – Christof Hetzer
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Dramaturgy – Klaus Bertisch

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Leigh Melrose
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortelazzi

Modernism’s endgame, modernist opera’s endgame, opera’s endgame: all have been proclaimed time and time again. One might say the same for Romanticism, Classicism, sonata, symphony, and other isms and genres. Whatever the truths of the matter — we can no longer justifiably speak in the singular, if ever we could — this first opera by György Kurtág, first heard in Milan in 2018 and now receiving its French premiere, suggests that twilight, however prolonged, has once again proved as productive, as challenging, as illuminating as first dawn or zenith. The owl of Minerva may or may not be spreading its wings; Kurtág may or may not be almost the last modernist standing; opera may or may not be stronger, more varied, more resistant than ever before. These are inevitable and may even be important questions. What matters above all, though, is that Kurtág’s Fin de partie/Endgame emerges, even from a single hearing, a single experience in the theatre, as an unqualified masterpiece.

Janus-faced, like most — all? — artworks of stature, Fin de partie takes Beckett’s masterpiece, which Kurtág first saw in Paris in 1957, and, in concluding a modernist chapter, perhaps even a book, appears also to open several more. Although it feels very much a finished work, it remains at least in theory a work-in-progress, to which Kurtág might add further ‘scenes and monologues’ from Beckett’s play — or even conceivably from elsewhere, given its second Prologue (the first being purely orchestral) is a setting for Nell, startlingly in English rather than French, of the poem Roundelay. This ‘dramatic version’ of the play, in most respects literal, with the slightest addition here or somehow seems always to have been conceived for music, indeed seems never to have existed without it. Libretto (if one may call it that) instructions are as detailed musically — ‘comme une mélodie de Debussy’ — as they are scenically, or both: ‘mouvement très lent d’interrogation avec la main gauche esquisse le “et puis” de Gr. C. et Piatti … assez grand changement de ton’. Many thanks are due to the Opéra national de Paris for reprinting it: an invaluable resource for future study and reflection, as well, I hope, as for subsequent preparation.

The ultimate synthetic distillation, though, is musical — just as one often fancies Beckett’s words to point not only to the limits, the endgame, of language, but to the beginning, the necessity of music. (His Schopenhauerism extended way beyond mere ‘pessimism’, to the truly aesthetic.) Words here are everything — one hears and hears measured every one — until they are not. That ancient operatic alchemy we trace back at least as far as Monteverdi is once more at work, and Monteverdi — the Monteverdi of the dramatic madrigals and the two surviving late operas in particular — comes to mind among many ghosts of the opera-as-sung-play past. Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Janáček stand prominently among them, as well inevitably — if perhaps more tangentially — as Wagner, Bach (‘not an opera composer, but’), and even Boulez (ditto?) Are these affinities or similarities, or are they actual influences? Does it really matter? It seems both to do so, as we reach the end of the game, but also not. After all, what does matter when we reach the end of the game, that any game, any game?

For, apart from his own voice — what a strange provision! — that which comes most strongly to mind is another supreme writer of vocal-dramatic music on the smaller scale, whom we yet imagine desiring, wishing, ultimately aiming to bring forth an operatic synthesis. As it was in the beginning, it still is now: Webern. Perhaps not even in Webern have I heard such sustained, certainly not such dramatic, development of intervallic relationships, in themselves and in relation to timbre (probably other parameters too) so as to fulfil the tragic necessity of rebuilding a shattered universe: the same task, yet always different. Every note counts, of course, yet every note is heard and felt, and bears the ultimate weight of tragic and tragicomic existence that we may know it counts. The affinity with Beckett’s language and what some understandably, straining at the bounds, will term in despair anti-literature is clear; but music is no representative mirror, any more than it is in Monteverdi, Wagner, or Webern. Its autonomy, its pairings — here as crucial as any in Bach or Bartók — and so much else, continue in hope, if you like, yet only in the strange sense that Beckett does. Until, I think, the close, when something strange happens, a musical synthesis taking wing and building, such as can often happen almost irrespective of intention. Think, for instance, of Wagner. This is less evidently redemptive, though stirrings of sympathy for Hamm and Clov are not entirely denied. Fin de partie, however, seems to speak or sing of something that might refashion redemptive ideas through shattered glass, shattered lives, the fragmentary challenges of modernity and modernism.

An orchestra used sparingly and with very different balances from that of the Romantic past — a modern ‘ensemble’ writ large — tells us that throughout. Just five first violins and five seconds, against eight violas, eight cellos, and six double basses, and indeed five flutes, six percussionists, two bayans (Beckettian vaudeville movingly transmuted via Sofia Gubaidulina), and so on have seeped into our consciousness, yet rarely if ever together. Mahler haunts, but he cannot live. Conducting, as he did earlier performances in Milan and Amsterdam, Markus Stenz understands or at least appreciates — can anyone ‘understand’? — communicates, and lets that fragility breathe and expire. We all listen, whether something can be said or sung, or not. For what else is there to do? Not listen, of course, but which of us wishes to assume Nagg’s fate? We know there will be no sugar-plum at the end, celesta notwithstanding.

Fin de partie: Hamm (r, Frode Olsen) and his parents (l) Nell (Hilary Summers) and Nagg (Leonardo Cortellazzi) © Sebastien Mathé/ONP

And yet, music endures, as does theatre — as, perhaps, do literature and drama too. A wonderful quartet of soloists ensures that, as does Pierre Audi’s careful direction, doubtless treading a minefield of what the dread estate, as well as the dedicated composer, would permit. Action/inaction takes place outside the house, but it looks very much as we should expect, without ever feeling expected: post-drama, we might think, of the post-absurd. Frode Olsen, struggling with illness, nonetheless held the stage with a fiercely committed performance as Hamm, holding it all together, in the tragicomic absence of any ‘it’ to hold. Leigh Melrose’s protean Clov, wounded yet spirited, alert and alive, yet quite without hope, struck me as definitive, however illusory the idea. An outstanding artist whenever I have heard him, Melrose may have given his finest performance yet. Hilary Summers offered a masterclass in extracting much from little, as Kurtág and Beckett do themselves. Transformation of a vocal line, through pitch, dynamics, shifting colour said, as with the rest of the cast, the rest of the work, both something and nothing, often in chamber collaboration with an instrument or two from the pit. Crucially, Nell’s death could neither have been more nor less heart-breaking. Leonardo Cortelazzi’s made for a fine sidekick, his Nagg splendidly, pointlessly excitable yet resigned. Steeped, like the others, both in the text and in its twin possibilities and impossibilities, he closed and opened the square that should have been a circle.

Here, then, is a masterpiece in a way that seems, both modestly and defiantly, not of our age. Many composers would now, quite understandably, tell us such is not their interest. They are not attempting to write works such as Fin de partie and failing, ‘better’ or otherwise. Given the ideological issues at play, we can all understand that. When, however, a work — and this is, emphatically, A Work — such as this comes along, it brooks no dissent. To be there is akin to being there for Gawain (may its composer now rest in peace), for Mittwoch (likewise, on Sirius), maybe even for Wozzeck or for Tristan. Kurtág may or may not have been writing for posterity. Until one of our politicians hastens the final endgame, perhaps tomorrow, posterity will nonetheless hear and listen to Kurtág.

Mark Berry

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