György Kurtág’s only opera Fin de partie, based on Samuel Beckett’s play, has had a long gestation period. After being announced a number of times without materialising, it received its world premiere at La Scala last November, when it was declared to be a masterpiece. Kurtàg, now in his early nineties, was unable to travel to Milan, or to Amsterdam, where the same cast and conductor have brought the production to the Opera Forward Festival. At the curtain call last Wednesday, conductor Markus Stenz and director Pierre Audi held up the score and accepted the fervent applause on the composer’s behalf. Deservedly, the first-class singing and lucid staging were also warmly received.

Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg) © Ruth Walz
Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg)
© Ruth Walz

Two post-war movements, the classical music avant-garde and the Theatre of the Absurd, converge in Fin de partie in a perfect symbiosis of text and music. Instead of contracting Beckett’s play, Kurtág set around 60 percent of it, including the opening and closing scenes, practically word for word. The play’s major themes­ – fear of obliteration, psychological paralysis, uncertainly about reality and direction – still dominate, and Beckett’s dialogue patterns and dark humour remain intact. Kurtág considers the work unfinished, and, ideally, would like to set the whole thing. As it stands, however, it feels complete. Since the plot can be summed up as “What is the plot?”, the cuts do not affect it. There are four characters in Endgame, as the English version is called. Hamm is blind and unable to stand. His servant and foster child Clov walks with a limp, but is unable to sit. Hamm’s parents, Nell and Nagg, have no legs and live in two dustbins. The end of the world is imminent, or maybe has already happened, or is happening now. Nobody knows, everyone is terrified, and no one is able to help anyone else.

<i>Fin de partie</i> © Ruth Walz
Fin de partie
© Ruth Walz

Utilising a full orchestra, but only rarely at full complement, Kurtág’s score is opera in its most essential form. Just like for Monteverdi at the art form’s beginning, his point of departure is the text. Kurtág moulds the notes to the words in logical, transfixing speech rhythms. He doesn’t just punctuate text, though, such as with three-note figures for ellipses, but cloaks it in associations. Bassoons deepen Hamm’s yawns. Nell and Nagg’s nostalgia triggers an accordion quoting “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” from the 1952 film High Noon. Two pianos, a celesta and a cimbalom add jangled-nerved eeriness. Specific use of instrumental colour and skilful application of rests give the work an astonishing clarity. Under the vigilant Stenz, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic rendered the score with great plasticity and eye for detail. The conversation between the musicians and singers could not have flowed more naturally.

Frode Olsen (Hamm) © Ruth Walz
Frode Olsen (Hamm)
© Ruth Walz

This being an opera, Audi was free to override Beckett’s strict staging instructions for the play. Instead of putting the characters in the requisite bare room, he ingeniously places them in a set of bespattered houses nested inside each other. Thus, outside and inside become interchangeable, in a spatial representation of the characters’ existential disorientation. The angle of the set is changed in each of the five scenes, keeping things visually interesting. The singers’ movements are precise and synced to the music. Urs Schönebaum keeps them well-lit among the textured shadows. Everything about this production is clear and flawlessly timed. The cast not only sang superlatively in the conventional sense, but were consummate voice artists, inflecting and manipulating their instruments in every way imaginable. At the beginning of the opera, Kurtág adds a prologue, setting a poem in English by Beckett called Roundelay. Contralto Hilary Summers, who played Nell, formed its every word with sybillic force, glowing from a high window in an otherwise dark set.

Leigh Melrose (Clov) © Ruth Walz
Leigh Melrose (Clov)
© Ruth Walz

Summers and tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi as Nagg made a piteously tender couple. Their doomed attempt to become close by remembering the past was touchingly realised with contrasting timbres. Cortellazzi’s protracted, agonising wail when Nell dies is not easily forgotten. In his first monologue, bass Frode Olsen yawned and howled and held forth, establishing the complexity of the enigmatic Hamm. Hamm tries to make sense of his experiences, past and present, by retelling them. He suffers deeply but can only relate to others with a detached cruelty. Olsen deserves high praise for his multifaceted portrayal and the level of physical energy he projected from his wheelchair. So does baritone Leigh Melrose, who made Clove’s powerless anger truly uncomfortable to behold. Tightly wound and hobbling about savagely, at the end, when Clov decides to abandon Hamm, or maybe not, he looked as if he was about to blow up. The epilogue also threatened to explode, surging upwards, then narrowing down to a repeated chord in no hurry to go anywhere. It was the end, but it could just as plausibly have been the beginning.

*****