In retrospect, Franz Kafka, author, and György Kurtág, composer, might have been made for each other. Kafka’s ability to evoke a nightmarish world in which reality seems just out of reach and Kurtág’s laconic, often cryptic music share some of the same territory, and it is not surprising that Kurtág should have turned to the writer for his haunting song cycle, Kafka Fragments.
Scored for soprano and solo violin, and consisting of 40 brief fragments that add up to just over an hour, it is a difficult piece to bring off. Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars, the American soprano and director who have worked together on many new music projects, ventured a staged version at the Barbican in 2010, and now, here is another attempt at staging it.
What is Kafka Fragments supposed to mean? The brief sentences from Kafka offer no narrative, no personality that can be pinned down, and Kurtág’s music rarely lingers long enough for the listener to grasp its meaning before the sounds evaporate into the air. This is a song cycle that demands a concentrated audience, as its series of intense, unrelated images flashes past.
Perhaps that is why Netia Jones, director of the mixed-media partnership Lightmap, wanted to visualise the work in terms of light and image projections. The stage is basically in darkness, and for each song, projections take us into a shadowy world, everything in black and white, with abstract images that show the singer behind the bars of a prison, in a vertical shaft of light (buried in a hole?) or a low horizontal beam (a tunnel to freedom?). The staging homes in powerfully on the work’s sense of alienation, portraying the woman cut off from the world, nervously alone with her thoughts and feelings.
The musical performance could hardly be bettered. Claire Booth, dressed as everywoman in a featureless grey suit, sings with an expressive beauty that lights up one fragment after another, and Peter Manning is no less impressive in the range of colours he gets from the solo violin part. Kafka Fragments will always be hard work, however it is performed, but this was a more imaginative and rewarding take on it than the earlier Barbican staging.