György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments [Claire Booth, Peter Manning & Netia Jones at Linbury Studio Theatre]

György Kurtág
Kafka Fragments, Op.24

Claire Booth (soprano) & Peter Manning (violin)

Netia Jones – Director, Designer & Video Artist

Reviewed by: Hannah Sander

Reviewed: 28 March, 2013
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Kafka Fragments © Netia Jones & Royal Opera House Covent GardenHungarian-Jewish composer György Kurtág and Czech-Jewish Franz Kafka make a beautiful pairing. Between them they encapsulate both the breadth and depth of modernism. Shattering emotions, gentle poetic calm, love, loss and isolation do battle in the concise, often fleeting works the two have produced. Kurtág was born in 1926, two years after Kafka’s death, and yet his Kafka Fragments, a song-cycle of lines taken from the writer’s letters, diaries and notebooks, feels contemporaneous.

Kurtág’s musical career began early and he was a close friend of György Ligeti while studying in Hungary; yet it was after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, and his subsequent flight to Paris, that he found his voice. Emerging from the fog of severe depression, he came across two figures whose influence on Kafka Fragments is ever-present: Anton Webern and Samuel Beckett.

Comprised of 40 miniatures varying in length from 20 seconds to four minutes, Kafka Fragments pairs a soprano with a violinist, serving as accompaniment and, in a small number of songs, a second soloist. Kurtág divides his chosen texts into four movements, each a series of fragments. Aided by careful selection from Kafka’s writings, Kurtág finds an extraordinary range of colour and character. The ironic observation “Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together” is followed by a short burst of desolation in the jewel ‘My prison cell – my fortress’.

Projections from Kafka Fragments © Netia Jones & Royal Opera House Covent GardenKurtág’s settings are mood pieces. There is a resigned, almost summery warmth to his setting of the lines “The flower hung dreamily on its tall stem. Dusk envelops it.” Elsewhere, ‘Scene at the station’ is a horror story, music matching stark words: “The onlookers freeze as the train goes past.” The admission “I can’t actually tell a story, in fact I am almost unable to speak” is set to delicate whispers and gasps.

Director and video artist Netia Jones introduces a third aspect to this performance. Projected behind and on top of Claire Booth and Peter Manning, the pair insignificant on the large black stage, were a series of videos and lights. These monochrome designs were sometimes visual representations of the text or abstract manifestations. Kurtág named Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as a significant influence, and although that work is not quoted from, its helplessness recurs. In one fantastically evocative section, the terror of text and music takes the form of a huge flickering eye. The projections trap Booth within geometric shapes or force her to crawl across the ground to remain away from darkness. Lattices and webs of white light appeared on the floor and walls, piercing into Booth. Jones also finds gentle Beckett-like humour in the cycle, and Booth’s enjoyment of these lighter moments is contagious.

Projections from Kafka Fragments © Netia Jones & Royal Opera House Covent GardenAs well as designing the videos, Jones also stages the performance, using minimal movement. Dressed in a neat grey skirt and jacket, Booth is the respectable urban heroine driven to hysterics by her thoughts. When not singing, she stands frozen with mouth open in horror and eyes wide. Booth specialises in contemporary music, and not only handles deftly Kurtág’s extraordinarily demanding, lengthy score but also brings a hot-blooded, operatic colour to her rendition, vital in this work rooted as it is in German romanticism. Concert Master of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Peter Manning’s violin-playing was wonderfully assured and deliciously spidery. The part is so technically demanding as to be nigh-on impossible, requiring an additional instrument (scordatura, mistuned) as well as a toolkit of techniques.

Kafka Fragments demands a great deal from the audience as well. This staging does much to assist. Jones’s designs are as imaginative and effecting as they are occasionally simplistic or distracting. Kurtág’s music can appear dense when it is in fact as pure as diamond, and the combination of Jones’s minimal staging, and a series of projections incorporating the text in English, brings this brilliant score to life.

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