Luca Francesconi's Quartett has at last made it to Britain. Francesconi is hardly obscure. His music has long been championed by Irvine Arditti and the Arditti Quartet , and is regularly heard in European new music circles. There's even a Francesconi premiere at this year's BBC Proms (apparently cancelled some weeks ago, see below). Maybe the British don't like intellect. But any serious art requires an element of intellectual and emotional input. Surely that cannot be beyond us?
What kind of minds dismiss a culture whose language and mores they don't understand Quartett may not appeal to the G&S set, or the G&T set for that matter, but that doesn't make it invalid. There are many - even in London - who know Francesconi's language but yet again, the British media seem more concerned about themselves than about music. Daily Mail aesthetics are not mandatory!
Quartett might seem gruesome but no more so than the original story, which was written in 1782. In Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses Valmont and Merteuil play kinky mind games. They manipulate other people , and pride themselves on their cynical lack of emotional engagement. They're specially drawn to good people like Madame de Tourvel, because they get a special kick from destroying genuinely good and sincere people. The original book is so well known that it should be part of basic education, but there's also a summary on Wikipedia and a Meryl Streep movie.
Les Liaisons damgereuses is a collection of letters, reputedly exchanged by Merteuil and Valmont as they plot their stratagems and taunt one another. In a modern novel, we read multiple points of view, and the author's commentary. In letter-novels we have only the letter writers' perspective: we have to guess between the lines how other people feel. The structure of Francesconi's Quartett replicates this anomie, so fundamental to the emotional disengagement Merteuil and Valmont seek to achieve.
Andrew Gourlay conducted the London Sinfonietta. This isn't easy music to play although it's so atmospheric that it sets the background to the story. The orchestra murmurs comment, and screams in frustration, suggesting the unseen voices of people whom Valmont and Merteuil block out of their consciences. Quartett is much more sophisticated and satisfying than much of what the
London Sinfonietta has been doing in recent years.
Gradually Valmont and Merteuil get deeper into the wider implications of what they have done. Valmont and Merteuil think of Cécile, the young virgin straight from convent whom Valmont seduced, and ruminate on the idea of sin and the church, They ponder the irony that the parts they pollute once gave them life. Do they find wisdom ? In the book, Valmont is thrown off his scams because he developed genuine feelings for Tourvel. Merteuil had to acknledge that she had feelings for him under her tough exterior. Perhaps, as Valmont sings, they'll get together in hell. Thus he willingly drinks poison, while Mereteuil looks on, waiting.
John Fulljames's staging highlights the psychic dislocation. Soutra Gilmour's simple panels of fabric hang down from the ceiling, giving a vertical dimension to the horizontal stage. With intelligent lighting (the wonderful Bruno Poet) the fabric can resemble torn lace, or mountains, or reversed, black flames reaching upwards from Hell. Sounds Intermedia mixed the electronics. Ravi Deepres created the video projections. Mark Stone and Angelica Voje sing in the second cast.
Please also read Susana Malkki on Francesconi
Also read Leila Josefowicz, on Francesconi's Duende, which was commissioned for her. She did the world premiere in February. Apparently, she is pregnant and has had to cancel engagements until November. For contractual reasons no other soloist can do the piece, so the BBC has had to rustle up a replacementwork for Prom 28, so the announcement was made only last week.
Photos Copyright Stephen Cummisky, Royal Opera House
This review appears in Opera Today