BBC Proms reviews

Prom 43 review – Kurtág’s Endgame enjoys its UK premiere at the Royal Albert Hall

17 August 2023

The Hungarian composer’s operatic version of Beckett’s Fin de partie.

Prom 43

Endgame (Photo: Sisi Burn)

György Kurtág’s first opera Endgame premiered at La Scala on 15 November 2018. He had started writing it seven years earlier, but this still means that he was 85 when he embarked on the longest composition of his life. Based on Samuel Beckett’s eponymous 1957 play, and performed in French, it is officially described as ‘Scenes and monologues; opera in one act’. The libretto uses only half or so of the play’s lines, but no material has been invented, adjusted or added in pursuit of making it fit for purpose in its new form. In some ways, the marriage of Beckett’s words and Kurtág’s music would seem to be a match made in heaven. The fragmented nature of the play’s text, and the feelings of bleakness and desolation that are generated, find their equal in Kurtág’s ability to capture the spirit of a thought through sinuous wind, ‘turgid’ brass or an array of xylophone effects. It is for this reason that it is right to acclaim the composer’s Endgame as a modern masterpiece, albeit a slightly imperfect one.

One might still argue that it does not pay to take a play that is so vested in its words, and add another layer to it in the form of music. Given that Kurtág’s is so fundamentally suited to Beckett’s text, the criticism in this instance is largely narrowed to those problems that arise from parts of the latter being cut. When things take longer to say with music, and when opera tends to be suited to exploring fewer points in more detail, Kurtág may have done nothing fundamentally different to anyone else who has ever adapted a play for the opera house by simplifying certain things. At the same time, however, the ‘cuts’ do see some points come across less clearly than would be ideal. The central relationship between Hamm and Clov hardly seems to register at all until well over halfway through the two hour piece, with Hamm’s parents tending to dominate the proceedings for much of the first half.

Whatever the reason for this may be, when Hamm narrates his story of how one Christmas Eve a man came begging for bread for his son and Hamm ended up hiring him, it does not feel as multifaceted as in the play. Perhaps because the music ‘overloads’ the experience, there is not that same feeling of progression as we hear a story told by Hamm as a narrator, and then move on to realise that the character of the narrator is really Hamm recalling the events of how Clov came to him. Kurtág has asserted that the piece is still a work in progress to which he will add more scenes, although critic Andrew Clements suggests that ‘in the meantime it seems the current version should be regarded as definitive’.    

“…the marriage of Beckett’s words and Kurtág’s music would seem to be a match made in heaven”

Prom 43

Hilary Summers & Leonardo Cortellazzi (Photo: Sisi Burn)

Given that Beckett dictated a minimalist set for the play, comprising an empty room with two small windows, it stands to reason that this semi-staging of the opera worked well. Although its previous presentations in Milan and Amsterdam were fully staged, the most fundamental difference between those and this present one may have been that here the orchestra shared the stage with the singers. If anything, however, this had a positive effect as it is clear that Kurtág’s score is one that very much needs to breathe. Victoria Newlyn, who last year directed L’elisir d’amore for West Green House Opera, placed the two dustbins that contain Nell and Nagg at the centre of the stage behind the orchestra. This certainly produced dividends, even if the two performers had to suffer for their art by being forced to crouch behind the bins for the entire time that their characters were ‘offstage’. One of the key themes of the play is that ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ or, in other words, that absurd things can be funny in some contexts and horrifying in others. Having Nell deliver her lines that argue this case from such a central position undoubtedly helped them to resonate.   

At the back of the stage, images appeared on a long strip that were just enough to give the evening a further dimension. The default was a red and purple pattern that seemed reminiscent of cine film, or even Rothko paintings. However, they often changed so that when Nell and Nagg described sailing on Lake Como they conveyed a fluid, watery surface, while sometimes a classic image of a happy man, possibly Hamm or Nagg when younger, appeared when Nell and Nagg discussed the notion of what is funny. 

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was impeccable, while the cast felt extremely well versed in the required style of performance. As Hamm, Frode Olsen’s bass possessed a dramatic grandeur that made it especially suited to conveying Beckett’s words, as well as effects such as yawning. Morgan Moody, the only one of the four performers not to have appeared at the world premiere in 2018, revealed quite an assertive and expansive bass-baritone in the role of Clov. As Nell and Nagg respectively, Hilary Summers and Leonardo Cortellazzi created the most brilliant ‘double act’ as they bounced off each other to great effect. The result was a compelling evening that left us in no doubt that if Kurtág’s Endgame is a flawed masterpiece, the emphasis should very much be on the second of those two words.

Prom 43 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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Prom 43 review – Kurtág’s Endgame enjoys its UK premiere at the Royal Albert Hall