Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Donnerstag aus Licht @ Royal Festival Hall, London

21, 22 May 2019

Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

Donnerstag aus Licht (1978-1980) is the fourth opera in Stockhausen’s Licht: Die sieben Tage der Woche cycle, comprising twenty-nine hours of music, though it was the first to be written. The fact, however, that it turned out to be the most ‘normal’ of the seven operas, in having a unified narrative and fitting a regular opera house, probably says more about the other six. This is because this narrative, which is focused on emotions and memories, still does not create a particularly plot driven work, while even this opera has parts that spill beyond the auditorium as if such a conventional area is incapable of containing all it has to say.

Donnerstag aus Licht is the most biographical of the seven operas, with much of what happens to its protagonist mirroring Stockhausen’s own life. Told across three acts plus a ‘prologue’ (Gruss) and ‘epilogue’ (Abschied) it explores the life of Michael, the hero of the entire cycle, by examining his youth, journey around the earth and homecoming. It is, however, a deeply meditative and psychological work, with Stockhausen’s score featuring live and pre-recorded sounds, and the electronic music that it includes feeling perhaps as if it is portraying streams of consciousness. In the same way, each central character is represented by three or four figures, namely an instrumentalist, a dancer and one or two singers.

This current run of two performances constitutes the first appearance of the opera in the UK since 1985. Although the Royal Festival Hall is a concert venue, the sheer attention to detail in Benjamin Lazar’s direction, coupled with the nature of the piece which will always demand some instrumentalists to be placed physically at its centre, rightly earns the evening the title of staged, rather than semi-staged. Act I examines the childhood of Michael (tenor Hubert Mayer), focusing on what his mother Eve (soprano Léa Trommenschlager) and father Lucifer (bass Damien Pass) teach him before considering how Eve dies in a mental hospital (as Stockhausen’s own mother did) and Lucifer on the battlefield.

Paul Griffiths suggests that ‘the libretto of Donnerstag (by the composer, mostly in German but also in other real and invented languages) is not so much a text to be sung as a schedule of cues for musical-dramatic action, a large part of that action executed by instrumentalists’. In this performance, much is made of this through the placing of the surtitles on a screen behind the stage so that they become part and parcel of Yann Chapotel’s video designs. Thus, words flash up in different places as if they are also emphasising the fragmentary nature of childhood memories. In this way, Michael’s parents are referred to as ‘Luzimon’ but different permutations based on this name appear. As a result, while the piece is very much based on Stockhausen’s own childhood, the emphasis on how memories can be distorted makes the piece feel far more abstract than representative of a specific scenario.    

At this time, hardly any instrumentalists grace the stage, though one of several exceptions is a human-avian figure (Iris Zerdoud), the musical incarnation of Eve who Michael interacts with, and whose long fingers on her costume are designed so that they do not impede her playing of the basset horn. Sound effects prove highly skilful so that when Eve goes into a bath at the mental asylum the sound of the splash is loud and disconcerting. Some of the pre-recorded sounds emanate from all corners of the hall while others seem as if they are coming from one specific source. The act ends by depicting Michael’s audition to a conservatory, which he passes with flying colours.

Act II portrays Michael’s journey around the earth, and the staging was originally conceived to include a giant globe that he could step inside and then out of at various locations such as Cologne and New York. The act sees the orchestra, overall comprising Le Balcon, the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, all conducted by Maxime Pascal, on stage. In fact, there are no singers at all as Michael is portayed by the trumpeter (an outstanding Henri Deléger) who impressively plays from memory throughout. At times the music seems to depict quite specific events in the places he visits, while at others it evokes their moods in more abstract ways. There are two Clownesque Swallows (Alice Caubit and Ghislain Roffat) who play the clarinet and basset horn, and whose cheekiness sees the orchestra’s leader rise at one point as if to order them off. There are, however, confrontations and battles to be won as these and various brass instruments clash in wars of strength and intimidation.

Act III sees Michael’s homecoming and features choirs both visible and invisible, with live and pre-recorded singing interacting. The hall is filled with all sorts of activity as the singers of the New London Chamber Choir are divided into groups, with the number in each being significant, and diagonal lasers, courtesy of lighting designer Christophe Naillet, cut across the stage before converging on a gong and illuminating it like the sun. After this, however, the opera proper ends in quite a remarkable fashion as the stage is cleared to reveal just three figures – Michael as singer (now Safir Behloul), trumpeter and dancer (Emmanuelle Grach) – who explore what he has learnt through seven shadow plays as they seem to stare the audience in the face.

In the same way as the opera enjoys a Gruss, here performed in the Clore Ballroom, it also has an Abschied. Standing on the terrace outside the Royal Festival Hall hearing trumpeters, some above on a balcony and others below by the river, play segments of the Michael formula is quite an experience in its own right. It may, however, only feel like such a perfect moment because it is rounding off what is an exceptional and overwhelming evening all round.

The Southbank Centre’s Stockhausen: Cosmic Prophet weekend takes place on 1-2 June 2019. For details of all events and tickets visit the designated website.

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Donnerstag aus Licht @ Royal Festival Hall, London