Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Donnerstag aus Licht

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


by Karlheinz Stockhausen, directed by Benjamin Lazar

Opéra-Comique, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

May 21-22, 2019

Michael: “Um Himmelsmusik den Menschen

und Menschenmusik den Himmlischen zu bringen”

It’s quite unusual at the end of an opera not for singers but for two instrumentalists to receive the loudest and longest applause. But then Donnerstag aus Licht (1981) by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) is an unusual opera and the heroic work of basset hornist Iris Zerdoud and especially trumpeter Henri Deléger fully deserved their great acclaim. Anyone who entered the Royal Festival Hall dreading the experience of a five-hour opera by the father of experimental music, left invigorated from being plunged into new soundworlds and new ways of thinking about opera. Director Benjamin Lazar’s reimagining of Donnerstag for the concert hall rather than the opera house made the massive work approachable while still revealing its design as extraordinarily grand but never grandiose.

Donnerstag aus Licht is part of Stockhausen’s 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht (Light), each part named for a day of the week. “Donnerstag” is “Thursday” but was actually the first opera in the cycle to be written and has proved to be the opera most often revived separately, although such revivals are not all that common. The present production by the Opéra-Comique of Paris is the first time the opera has been presented in London since its premiere there in 1985.

The work, focussed on the archangel Michael, consists of a greeting, three acts and a farewell. At the Southbank Centre the greeting or Donnerstags-Gruß was performed by the orchestra in the Clore Ballroom. It contains the musical themes or formulae, as they are known, from which the opera is constructed and is meant to be heard as the audience arrives, thus forming a transition from the outside world to the world of the opera. The farewell or Donnerstags-Abschied is performed by five trumpeters who each repeat one segment of the Michael formula for 30 minutes as the audience leaves the theatre, thus forming a transition from the world of the opera to the outside world. 

The opera proper consists of the three acts – Michaels Jugend (Michael’s Youth), Michaels Reise um die Erde (Michael’s Journey around the Earth) and Michaels Heimkehr (Michael’s Return). As we enter the Royal Festival Hall, electronic music is already playing. This music, Unsichtbare Chöre (Invisible Choirs), composed for up to 180 voices singing texts in Hebrew and German, plays in the background throughout Acts 1 and 3, but is usually so faint that its main effect is to create an otherworldly atmosphere rather like the female choir Gustav Holst used for his music for “Neptune” in The Planets (1918).

For Act 1 there is no orchestra on stage. There are only a few props, two chairs, a bathtub and a trunk. Stage right is the domain of Eva (soprano Léa Trommenschlager), the mother of Michael (tenor Hubert Mayer) who has taken on human form, stage left is the domain of Michael’s father Luzifer (bass Damien Pass). Since the parents remain in their separate domains, Michael travels between them. From his mother he learns language, singing and dancing. From his father, clad as a soldier, he learns praying, numbers and shooting.

Gradually, we see that each of the characters exists in three forms – as a singer, a dancer and a musician. Besides Michael the singer is Michael the dancer (Emmanuelle Grach), dressed as a young boy, and Michael the trumpeter (Henri Déleger). Besides Eva the singer, is Eva the dancer (Suzanne Meyer) and Eva the basset hornist (Iris Zerdoud), all of whom are dressed alike. Besides Luzifer the singer is Luzifer the trombonist (Mathieu Adam), also dressed as a soldier. We meet Luzifer as a dancer (Jamil Attar) only later in the scene.

As Michael grows older we note that he is much more taken with the realm of his mother than with that of his father. Then a disaster occurs. His mother gives birth to a son who dies. The death drives her insane and she is put into an asylum symbolized by the bathtub. In reaction, the father takes to drink, goes off to war and is killed. 

The primary criticism against Lazar’s symbolic staging is that none of the disastrous events are clear. Rather than knowing Eva has had another child, we could easily think she was recalling the birth of Michael. It is not clear in Stockhausen’s libretto and Lazar does not make it clearer why one of Eva’s doctors should give her a fatal injection. It is also not clear that either parent dies.

Only in Act 3 do we realize that since each character exists in three forms, “killing” one form does mean that the character itself has been killed. Death of one form of a character, likely following the philosophy of eternal recurrence that underlies the whole Licht cycle, is only a temporary silencing or stilling of movement.

In any case, at the same time that his parents are meeting their deaths, Michael’s thoughts turn to love in the second scene of Act 1. Here me meets the Papagena-like half-bird, half-human Mondeva (meaning “Moon-Eve”), a basset hornist (also Iris Zerdoud) imaginatively clad by designer Adeline Caron. Michael unsuccessfully tries to woo her as a singer. He sings of his interest in her. She plays variations on the Michael and Eva formulae to him, but neither understands the other.

The third scene of Act 1 consists of Michael’s examination to enter a conservatory and he is tested as a tenor, a trumpeter and a dancer. All three selves impress the jury, which consists of his parents and their dancer doubles, and Michael is admitted.

Even though Act 1 features the most conventional characters in the opera, it is the most difficult of the acts to take in because so much of it consists of the unaccompanied singing of separate words or, more often, fragments of words, never full sentences much less arias. In the interaction of Mondeva and Michael, at least there is a greater extension of vocal and instrumental melody. The third scene confirms what we have already surmised about the tripartite nature of the characters and with the admittance of Michael to the conservatory ends in the most satisfactory way.

When we enter the auditorium for Act 2, an orchestra occupies the left and right thirds of the stage leaving the centre third empty except for a grand piano and a tuba that form the back border of the playing area.  Act 2 is paradoxically the most experimental and the most purely enjoyable of Donnerstag’s three acts. It is experimental in that it is undeniably operatic in structure but is entirely instrumental. It is enjoyable because it opens your eyes to new possibilities in opera and because, contrary to what might expect from such a heavily symbolic work, it is full of humour.

In Act 1, Stockhausen already established that each singer is doubled by both a dancer and a musician. In Act 2 he asks, “Why not have the musicians act out the parts instead of the singers?” Thus, trumpeter Henri Deléger, armed with a belt holding six types of mutes, plays Michael and performs what is essentially a 52-minute-long horn concerto with a dramatic programme. The programme is, not accidentally, very much like the plot of Wagner’s Siegfried (1876). Michael sets out on a journey around the world, rather than Siegfried’s Rhine journey, slays a dragon and finds his beloved.

In his journey Michael sets out from Cologne, where Stockhausen studied and later taught. He then moves on to New York, Japan, Bali, India and Central Africa. To indicate each of these locations Lazar has a video of a child with a globe projected on the back wall of the hall. The globe spins and the child’s finger points to the next stop of Michael’s journey. On stage a bright circle of light is thrown between the two halves of the orchestra and Deléger makes his way around the perimeter for each new stop. Musically, Stockhausen’s rhythms and orchestration change with each location to reflect the sonic climate of each locale – big band sounds in New York or gongs in Bali. 

Michael is not free from danger. Before he begins his journey he has to fight off Luzifer in his form as a trombonist. At various times Michael and the orchestra are annoyed by two clarinettists (Alice Caubit and Ghislain Roffat), whom Stockhausen labels as clownesque swallows. Then in Central Africa he encounters a dragon in the form of the tuba player (Stuart Beard). The excitingly choreographed battle ends when Deléger inserts the bell of his trumpet into the bell of Beard’s tuba and blasts him to death. Beard, lying on the floor, continues to blurt out individual notes as the dragon comically dies while Michael celebrates.

After defeating the dragon, Michael hears a basset horn and calls for the world to rotate backwards. He again encounters Mondeva, this time clad as a concert basset hornist. Since both Michael and Mondeva (Zerdoud again) are both musicians this time, they are able to communicate and a lovely, playful duet ensues finishing in electronically extended unending trills.

Deléger gives a tremendous performance, not merely in memorizing so long a work and in performing it flawlessly. Deléger’s every move is choreographed, including the changing of mutes, and in the India section even his eye and eyebrow movements are specified. He is such a natural actor that we readily accept him as such, one who just happens to express himself by means of a trumpet.

The excellence of the acting of the instrumentalists extends to Zerdoud whose seductive movements and elegant playing are natural extensions of her character. As Luzifer,  Mathieu Adam sneaks in like an alligator on two legs and Caubit and Roffat as the clownesque swallows wag their heads back and forth as if to emphasize their malicious foolishness. Stockhausen’s libretto states that Michael is somehow “crucified” by the clowns, but Lazar has not staged this and it is not mentioned in the plot synopsis in the Southbank programme.

Act 3 dealing with Michael’s return home is divided into two parts – a Festival and a Vision. The Festival is spectacular. The 61-member New London Chamber Choir is divided into five groups in the choir loft and seemed to have been asked to wear ordinary street clothes, not black garb or choir robes. The greeting by Eve (now sung by soprano Elise Chauvin) and the choir is like a kaleidoscopic waterfall of sound cascading down from the choir loft into the hall. Michael (now sung by Safir Behloul) and Eva appear in all three of their forms. The Festival is a celebration of the threefold nature of everything. Light itself is celebrated in three forms – falling and being absorbed by earth, falling and spreading through air and falling and reflecting back into the sky. Mist pours into the auditorium and laser beams in changing colours illustrate the power of light. 

In the midst of the celebration Luzifer as a dancer sneaks into the assembly in the guise of a globe. When Michael the dancer discovers his true identity a battle ensues between Michael the trumpeter and both Luzifer the dancer and Luzifer the trombonist who now is also a tap-dancer. Luzifer and Michael as musicians battle by hurling sounds at each other, Michael eventually finishing off the trombonists with a few well placed blasts. Meanwhile, Jamil Attar performs incredible flips and twists as if being kicked and beaten by an invisible assailant while Micheal the trumpeter battles the trombonist. Stockhausen specifies that Michael the trumpeter skewers Luzifer the dancer with the conductor’s baton. Here, Michael borrows a bow from one of the cellists to do the deed. 

Yet, only two forms of Luzifer have been vanquished. Luzifer the singer (still Damien Pass) sings out his derision from the midst of the auditorium while we see him as a projection on the back wall of the stage. Luzifer exits calling Michael a fool, but Stockhausen gives him octave drop on the words “ein Narr” (“a fool”) that makes Luzifer’s last word sound like a donkey’s braying.

At this point Donnerstag really should have ended. The drama is over and we are still giddy from the swirls of sound from the full orchestra and choir. Unfortunately, Stockhausen felt the need to give Michel a Vision in which he, unaccompanied, retells everything we have just seen and states the purpose of the opera. Perhaps in writing so unusual an opera that would initiate a seven-opera cycle, Stockhausen felt such a summary was necessary. But it isn’t. In the libretto Stockhausen specifies that when Michael refers to them each of the scenes of the opera be replayed in the form of shadow plays. That, at least, would re-present the scenes in a form we had not previous witnessed and shadow plays have a meaning in Plato’s parable of the cave that might lend them greater interest.

Here Lazar has a video monitor on stage and a screen descends above the stage where excerpts of each of these scenes is literally replayed. It’s annoying to say the least to see on screen events that we had recently been excited to witness live. If it were possible, it would be best if the Vision were simply excised. Lazar’s decision for video replays of the past action and the lack of clarity in storytelling in Act 1 are his two greatest errors in what is otherwise an unusually imaginative production. 

After the letdown of the Vision, exiting the theatre the Farewell somehow rekindled the spirit of all that was so remarkable about Donnerstag. Five trumpeters, two on the balcony of the Southbank Centre, one at a corner of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and two on the riverside walkway facing the Thames played Michael’s theme so hauntingly that the audience that is meant to hear the notes as they leave stopped to enjoy them more fully. With the lights of London spread out on the north side of the Thames, the effect was infinitely calming and magical. Knowing I should move on as we were expected to do, I crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge to reach the other side of the river and was amazed that the sound carried hauntingly across.

If Lazar’s re-imagining of Donnerstag for the concert hall means that the work will be performed more often, then he has done the music world an enormous service. The fierce commitment of conductor Maxime Pascal to the score and that of the combined forces of Le Balcon, the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble who played under him communicated itself to the audience and swept us up into Stockhausen’s musical imagination that sounds in its beauty and oddity like no other music you may have heard. The powerful performances of the principals in all three of their forms equally held one rapt throughout the opera. It was an unforgettable experience. Mention that Lazar plans to stage the other six operas of Licht should be welcomed by all and, one hopes, will draw more viewers and listeners to this gigantic musical exploration of time, eternity and how best to live in the world that is our home.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Jamil Attar as Luzifer the dancer with Emmanuelle Grach as Michael the dancer and Henri Deléger as Michael the trumpeter; the three Michaels – trumpeter Henri Deléger, dancer Emmanuelle Grach, tenor Safir Behloul; Damien Pass as Luzifer the bass and Hubert Mayer as Michael the tenor; Iris Zerdoud as Mondeva; Henri Deléger as Michael the trumpeter. © 2019 Tristram Kenton. 

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