Prom 43: György Kurtág’s Endgame (Fin de partie) [UK premiere]

György Kurtág
Endgame (Fin de partie) – opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer after Samuel Beckett’s Endgame [sung in French with English surtitles]

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Morgan Moody
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortellazzi

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 17 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

This was the UK premiere of Kurtág’s opera which has already received widespread acclaim since its premiere at La Scala in 2018. (Denoted here as Endgame, it would probably have made more sense to give its French name Fin de partie, seeing that Kurtág assembled the libretto from Samuel Beckett’s original French version of the eponymous play, rather than his subsequent English translation). Three of the four singers who participated in that run were present for this Proms performance, given in a semi-staging by Victoria Newlyn – but seeing that the opera adapts a work that is essentially an existentialist discussion about the meaning of life in which little outward action occurs, it probably loses very little through that. It is only the lame retainer Clov who needs to move across the stage. Here, Nell gives the setting of Beckett’s poem Roundelay as the prologue from the organ loft and then descends to the stage for the main part of the opera.

Otherwise, she and the other two characters are consigned to a torpid, hopeless existence that coincidentally is like a microcosm of the scenario of Parsifal, but without the prospect of any redemption from outside – indeed, however much they might seek to escape their imprisoned existence (Nell does so, but only by dying) there is in fact only death outside. Like the ailing Amfortas, Hamm languishes in illness and blindness, unable to walk or move from his seat; his elderly parents, Nagg and Nell, like Amfortas’s father, Titurel, are also unable to do little but await death – the last sons (or children) of a worn-out race (to quote Tender is the Night if I recall).

First, to address the undoubted, remarkable achievements of this project. The singers inhabited their roles so entirely as to make the characters seem normal in their absurd setting. Above all, within the prevailing hollow weariness of Frode Olsen’s approach to the role of Hamm, he attended to every nuance of his sung texts, vital in characterising and enlivening his long monologues as he recounted certain stories or reflected upon his situation. Morgan Moody was a laconic Clov, but no less expressive and impulsive for that. Paradoxically it was Hilary Summers and Leonardo Cortellazzi as the parents who let in a ray of light, the former with her stretches of lyricism, the latter singing with notable lustre. Whatever drama there is in the work, all four characterise their part in it diligently.

Kurtág’s score is astonishingly, daringly sparse, and could truly be said to be minimalist, though not in the same manner as mainstream minimalism. Here, very often no more than a few instruments at a time come together to comment briefly upon or to punctuate the sung dialogue (and the instrumental aspect almost always responds to the latter, rather than leading or directing it). If Webern had composed an opera it would surely have been something very much like this. Although superficially disconnected and not apparently an integrated instrumental line, Ryan Wigglesworth sustained the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in what registers, almost miraculously, as a continuous atmosphere or mood, against which the characters clutch at any memory or trace of activity to keep alive and remain hopeful. It is no mean achievement for the sizeable range of instruments in the ensemble to cohere so tightly and unanimously, in which the frequent silences between their interjections are as eloquent as the sounds themselves and were held in tension by the performers as a part of the seamless soundscape.

Turning to reservations now, unquestionably Kurtág’s compositional craftsmanship makes this a masterpiece as a setting of words. But the question crosses my mind, at least, as to what exactly this text has to say or offer that needs two hours to unfold. In what is essentially a review of music, the following thoughts may seem superfluous. But as an opera, it is probably incumbent upon a reviewer to comment upon the work not simply as music in the abstract, but as at least half of an integral whole that involves the setting of words. To succeed as music drama, the entity must stimulate in both those parts. Clearly this is one of very few operas in which the music follows, impressively, irrefutably, and in almost every minute detail, the imperatives of the text (however abstractly, rather than literally or pictorially) rather than the other way around. Significantly Kurtág cites Monteverdi as an inspiration, even if the musical style is very different. However, it would be very interesting to know what listeners to the radio broadcast get out of the experience without following the words or at least a very detailed synopsis, as the music has little autonomous validity or significance.

The main point in my view is that the underlaying play seems dated and needlessly longwinded. It may simply be my problem that such absurdist theatre resonates with me very little. Its pessimism and juxtaposition of absurd, irreconcilable ideas to make that point were undeniably avant-garde in the post-War period, and that pessimism still retains a certain modishness today. (Although it is striking that those who are most insistent today about the crises which face humans, individually or collectively – climate change; economic, social, or racial inequality and so on – are also those most vocal and active in trying to change those rather than exercise the luxury of standing by passively to accept or whinge about them.)

But, a few weakly sardonic jokes which form the pith of the work aside, what else is there? We twice hear “one is on the earth, there is no cure for that”, but apart from that wry medicalisation of the human condition, is there anything particularly profound and insightful about that comment, more than a truism? Such ironic aphorisms register more as pompous and sententious. Such a crystallisation of the drama’s central theme strikes as weak by comparison with, for example, the more sustained fantasy or allegory of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, another examination of disillusion and nihilism, which sees the protagonist led through a magic theatre of situations and ideas, at the end of which he is to face a trial and is similarly ‘condemned to life’. By contrast, the rambling stories which Hamm has to tell and that lead him on to his insights do pall for lack of variety and ingenuity. The joke about the temperature and weather during one monologue, as an ironically, defensively self-assuring observation of external reality to try and ground the tyranny of his subjective experience, occurs four times, and itself lacks originality in any case, as an echo of the very opening of yet another monument of existential literature, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The desperate situation Hamm represents to us as external witnesses is surely more succinctly expressed in Larkin’s poem The Old Fools. The more likeable Nagg and Nell also share their reminiscences, but excursions to the Ardennes and Lake Como are also pretty banal (even if that is part of the very point, but it creates needless padding).

Another approach is to see the play as akin to a Symbolist drama – and Kurtág’s fastidious, lean score corresponding superbly well as a more modern refinement of Debussy’s already rarefied Pelléas et Mélisande. Some objects or ideas within the play are significant, but no individual scene, nor the opera as a whole, fully works out from them. Things which appear significant are the blood-stained cloth which Hamm removes from his head at the beginning, and places over it again at the end; the dustbins from which his parents bob up for part of the work; or the sugar plums for which Nagg hankers, in vain. The latter proves all too prescient, perhaps, as the audience also looks for some plums to feast upon cerebrally or emotionally, but they rarely come.

For those attuned to drama of the absurd, this was unquestionably a rewarding performance and the opera will take its place as part of that genre’s canon. Otherwise it’s a work that may be respected at best, but is hard to like, much as I wished to do so at the outset.

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