Kafka Fragments, Barbican, London

By keeping in with maverick American director Peter Sellars the Barbican has secured itself a place at the international table for a regular supply of contemporary staged work. Over the years this has brought it important new pieces by leading composers such as John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, not to mention the occasional staging of a classic.

The latest in this high-profile series is Kafka Fragments, which arrived in London for its first European performance on Thursday. Sellars has taken György Kurtág’s 1985/6 setting of 40 short fragments lifted out of Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters and turned them into a staged event involving no more than projected images and the soprano and solo violinist of Kurtág’s score.

It makes for an austere evening, which demands a lot of concentration from everybody in the hall. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 Kurtág spent time in Paris and it was there he discovered the works of Samuel Beckett and Anton Webern. Kafka Fragments takes the essence of each and aims to blend them into a hard-hitting mixture of its own – the despairing alienation of Beckett, fired off in Webern’s highly-charged bullets of expression.

Most of the movements last around a minute. The shortest is a mere 10 seconds. How can so many fragmented ideas be made to add up to any kind of sensible narrative? His answer is to portray the soprano, here Dawn Upshaw, his most trusty collaborator, as an everyday housewife, washing the dishes, cleaning the floor, ironing the clothes. Occasionally she interacts with Geoff Nuttall, the resolute solo violinist and at the end they come together, as though an understanding has blossomed between them.

Does it work? Yes and no. At its best, the staging proposes a Kafka-like scenario of everywoman getting on with her life while unnamed threats gather beyond the kitchen door, and Dawn Upshaw’s intensity helped heighten the sense of inward-looking despair. At other times, where Kurtág might have invited one’s imagination to take flight, the staging kept eyes focused on the banal. Either way it is a hard-going 80 minutes. Kurtág offers no sweeteners and Sellars, to his credit, has added none of his own. () www.barbican.org.uk

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