Friday 24 May 2019

Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, or, Striking...Excessive...Sometimes Incomprehensible...And Yet...

Note: This is a review of the first of two performances on Tuesday 21st May 2019.

Years ago I recall reading a newspaper feature about Stockhausen's Licht cycle which must at that point, I think, have been unfinished. It stayed in the back of my mind and I always thought it would be interesting to see what some of it was like in practice. But as I trekked off to the Festival Hall on Tuesday contemplating 4+ hours of a composer virtually unknown to me I did begin to wonder what I was letting myself in for. I won't say he never needed an editor, but on balance it was worth it.

The opera proper consists of three acts, preceded by a Greeting (played in the Clore Ballroom) and followed by a Farewell (played from the Balcony and the Terraces outside to magical effect by five trumpeters. I don't pretend to have grasped all the finer points of myth and plot, and the autobiographical dimension is not I suggest apparent unless you've read it up in advance. However, a central narrative does come through concerning the struggle between good and evil - personified by angels, particularly Michael, and the devil Luzifer. As part of that struggle Michael, for reasons which remain slightly opaque, has decided to experience life as a human. Act 1 follows his childhood, in Act 2 (the highpoint of the evening) he travels round the world, in Act 3 he returns to the stars. Finally, in Act 3 Scene 2 Michael tells us the whole story all over again (Wagner's Norns have nothing on him), providing some additional clues to the frankly rather confusing action of Act 1. To further muddle matters two of the principal characters - Michael and Eva (at times his mother and at times in some other guise his lover - again the relationship between the two never became wholly clear to me) are represented in multiple forms - dancer, singer, instrumentalist.

Stockhausen's use of resources is highly varied - though, at least in this instalment of the epic, he shows a particular fondness for the brass. In both Acts 1 and 3 it is often stripped down to a single instrument or voice, but in Act 2 we have full orchestra with elaborate solos (the description of it in the programme as a "staged trumpet concerto" seems to me an excellent one) and Act 3 Scene 1 adds choir. There's also considerable use of recorded sound which, from my perch in the Balcony, certainly had an enveloping at times mystical effect.

Both Act 1 and Act 3 Scene 2 have their longeurs, at times verging on the kind of contemporary theatre where I start to wonder if the creator is sniggering behind his hand at audiences prepared to sit through this stuff - though Stockhausen, unlike many, is prepared admit people may be laughing - openly admitting at one point that he may be subject to ridicule (well technically the text is referring to Michael at that point, but I feel pretty confident Stockhausen had a wider meaning in mind). People count up to thirteen rather too often, and the theology can get a bit much. What rescues the evening, mainly, is the inventiveness of Stockhausen's music. His writing for solo or duetting instruments is consistently versatile and engaging, and despite the overblown qualities of the libretto Stockhausen sets it effectively - one may think it all a bit silly, but this is not to do with how it is set, and music does not feel like it's struggling to cope with too much text, getting bogged down with it, as has been a besetting vice of various recent contemporary operas I've sat through.

And there are truly remarkable musical high points. The 50 minute trumpet concerto of Act 2 is  mesmerising from start to finish (even if the orchestra are sadly not dressed, as apparently the composer wished, as penguins). It's a tour de force of technique and performance from Henri Deleger, who indeed is quite outstanding throughout. Among a number of fine solo contributions, Stuart Beard's tuba solo which ends up with him on the ground and Iris Zerdoud's basset horn duet with Deleger producing the funniest instrumental stimulation of sex I've come across particularly stood out. Act 3 Scene 1 with its addition of choir, larger orchestra and increased use of electronics creates a further varied, fascinating sound world with again particular credit to Mathieu Adam for his solo trombone Luzifer contributions.

Benjamin Lazar's semi-staging, supported by Yann Chapotel's videos and Christophe Naillet's lighting works well. There are some simple magical effects in Act 3 in particular - the creation of sun and moon on the gong is wonderfully done, and the light show doesn't try to do to much, finding rather an austere beauty that fits the mood of the scene well. While the regimented gestures of the principals (presumably detailed by the composer) can get tiresome - I began to suspect Peter Sellars of being influenced by this - the interactions of characters are effective. Particularly striking are Michael's various love duets with Mondeva, and the confrontation between Luzifer and Michael in Act 3. The film sequences help us to keep track of the narrative while avoiding the pitfall of excess.

The musical performances across the board are of a very high standard. In this political moment it was good to have Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta joining forces for this performance, alongside the Royal Academy of Music's Manson Ensemble and the New London Chamber Choir, plus various other soloists I've not mentioned. Conductor Maxime Pascal holds it all together brilliantly and keeps the sense of forward movement throughout.

In the last scene, as three Michaels replace three Norns, I did occasionally find myself thinking that Stockhausen was suffering from that familiar problem of contemporary work of not knowing how to stop. The mystical theology is at its most conspicuous here which doesn't altogether help. And yet, it has something. For all the overblown quality, the admonitions about the frailty of humanity, about the struggle between good and evil do say something meaningful, and do give an additional sense to the preceding drama.

Standing on the terrace, looking out on the river and the lights, we were gifted a final remarkable sonic effect as the quintet of trumpeters enveloped us in a final burst of Stockhausen harmonies. Altogether a fascinating evening. Hopefully, other instalments of the cycle will follow from this team.

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