One of the more memorable lines arrives just before the end. “I hope my performance did not bore you,” he bellows, as he prepares to die. “That would be unforgivable.” It’s an admirable sentiment, but it’s too little too late.
The fact is that Luca Francesconi’s 2011 opera Quartett did bore me. Why? The narrative can’t be to blame. Like Heiner Müller’s dramatisation of the Liaisons dangereuses story, on which this opera is based, it speaks compellingly of sexual cruelty, obsession and depravity that eventually ends in death. Francesconi’s libretto is raw, primal, poetic. And its pressure cooker atmosphere works well in the Linbury Studio Theatre, where this UK premiere took place. So what’s the problem?
It’s that Francesconi’s violent music fails to raise the drama to a new level, although not for want of effort, ambition or aplomb on the part of the London Sinfonietta and its conductor Andrew Gourlay, here making his Royal Opera debut. Calling for two orchestras, one pre-recorded and electronically manipulated, the score pelts us with bestial grunting, slithering violins, a battery of electronic sounds and influences including jazz, Berg, and hints of baroque.
Its effect is arresting but emotionally one-dimensional, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, reducing the dialogue to an unremitting melodrama and characterisations to still-life portraits. If you were to leave the theatre midway through and come back 20 minutes later, you would still get the gist. And while John Fulljames’s staging ekes out a sense of claustrophobia (together with Soutra Gilmour’s busy set and Bruno Poet’s chilling lighting), it doesn’t quite manage to get under the skin of the drama. Unlike Les Liaisons dangereuses, this left me feeling nothing for any of the characters.
Not that we can blame the cast: both mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez and baritone Leigh Melrose deal superlatively with the technical demands, dispatching the florid passages with gusto while convincingly embodying several roles each. And when the score calms down for the final scene, we even start to see a glimpse of a truly powerful opera: as Chávez rocks back and forth in despair – now utterly isolated – the orchestra transmits soft waves of sinister, shimmering beauty. Late, yes, but there nonetheless.