Quartett, Linbury Theatre

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For an immersive experience of modern opera, it doesn’t get better than this production of Francesconi’s Quartett, says Helen Wallace 

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Quartett, Linbury Theatre
Kristin Chávez as Marquise de Merteuil and Leigh Melrose as Vicomte de Valmont (photo: Cummiskey)

Sounds like flicked cigarette lighters and ticking clocks puncture the air. We’re staring at a woman and a man on a narrow bridge suspended above the orchestra pit. Above it, projections (by Ravi Deepres) of microscopic life animate moth-eaten strips of sheet.

This is Les Liaisons dangereuses played as Endgame. Luca Francesconi’s take on Heiner Müller’s bitter play Quartett strips the novel of its narrative arc and its intrigue, leaving only the antagonistic Vicomte de Valmont (Leigh Melrose) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Kirstin Chávez) trapped together in a decimated world, tearing each other apart. Their role-playing of the hated female rival Tourvel, and Merteuil’s vulnerable niece turns this powerful two-hander into the ‘quartet’ of its title.

This is the third outing for Francesconi’s chamber opera, which was premiered in 2011 on the main stage of La Scala. While that production (by Alex Ollé of La Fura del Baus) turned the stage into a peep show where giant projected figures peered at the singers' Lilliputian battles, John Fulljames’s decision to stage it in the Linbury leaves no room for an outside perspective. With audience seated both sides of the bridge, submerged in Francesconi’s vivid sound design, plus the London Sinfonietta underneath us, the effect was one of intense claustrophobia.  

And, from the start, there’s claustrophobia in Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship, whose vaccum threatens the dramaturgy. They’ve reached a stalemate and have nothing left to discover in each other, simply ‘the misery of being alive and not God.’ Where have they left to go? Will they devour each other? Do we care? In fact, the drama is – just – rescued, by its stylised structure. Each role-play takes on a different musical tension, interleaved by hanging ‘panels’ of sound - the disembodied voices of La Scala chorus along with the pre-recorded singer. These unearthly moments of stasis create the formal rhythm of the piece, in which Valmont’s brutal rape of Merteuil is answered by her cool decision to poison him, for real. The game is up.

Francesconi is a 21st century alchemist, whose lavish live-and-electronic musical language is refreshingly sophisticated. Here he’s created a high-voltage phantasmagorical collage of constantly changing tensions, ranging from Berg-like angst to granitic bass soundscapes, spectral impressions and piano-bar populism. The insect-like detail of the live score compels – Merteuil’s opening aria streams out over the husky breathing of brass, winds and plucked piano strings – while the vocal lines are brazen in their beauty, and magnificently performed by Chávez and Melrose, who command the stage for this 80-minute tour-de-force.  As Francesconi’s libretto states, ‘the terrors of opera are sweet’.

Quartett’s rare chinks of humanity are memorable: Melrose does an acidly comic turn as the young niece, and, in the work’s deafening orchestral climax, the two suddenly cling to each other with child-like terror. The moment is far more powerful stripped of any sexual connotation, as it was in the original production.

Quartett will run, unusually, for ten nights at the Linbury, Melrose and Chávez alternating with Mark Stone and Anjelica Voje under the precise direction of Andrew Gourlay. For an immersive experience inside the guts of modern opera, it doesn’t get better than this.

 

Quartett is showing at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre until 28 June 2014