Karlheinz Stockhausen’s career saw him move from enfant terrible and poster boy, to a larger than life increasingly isolated eccentric. In the decade before and after his death in 2007, interest in his work greatly reduced. A retreat from the extremes of musical experimentation seemed to leave Stockhausen high and dry, a monumental relic of the once all powerful avant garde. However, in recent years a renewed interest and rediscovery of the composer’s music has led to a new generation of admirers of the composers grand and ambitious visions, not least in Donnerstag aus Licht, the first instalment of his monument Licht project of seven operas, one for each day of the week.

Henri Deléger (Michael) © Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre
Henri Deléger (Michael)
© Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre

Written between 1978 and 1980, the opera was first performed in La Scala in 1981 and at Covent Garden in 1985. Little of it was then heard until a 2016 staging Basel, affecting a re-ignition of interest in this extraordinary work.

This evening's semi-staged production brought together the conductor Maxime Pascal, the London Sinfonietta, Le Balcon, The Manson Ensemble from the Royal Academy and the New London Choir, with vocal soloists and dancers. Starting with the Greeting music, which was intended to be performed in the Foyer as people arrived, introducing some of the musical themes to the audience, the main event opens with a depiction of a childhood, presumably the composer's own, laying out the musical and philosophical themes of the whole piece. What is surprising about the music here is its simplicity and lyricism, also how gratefully it is written for voices. The strange mix of biography, including a harrowing scene mad scene for the mother, quirky humour and visionary elements still retain a narrative pulse and provide opportunities for the soloists to shine, notably here Léa Trommenschlager as the beleaguered mother.

Iris Zerdoud, Suzanne Meyer and Elise Chavin (Eve) © Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre
Iris Zerdoud, Suzanne Meyer and Elise Chavin (Eve)
© Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre

Each of the main characters is represented by three performers: a vocalist, a dancer and an instrumentalist. The central figure, Michael, is a trumpeter, originally written for the composer’s son to perform, and the opposing force, known as Satan or Lucifer, is a trombonist. The three aspects of each character sometimes perform together, sometimes independently.

In Act 2 the vocal soloists are absent and the larger instrumental group accompany Michael on his journey around the world as an adult, almost in the form of a trumpet concerto. This fantastically colourful act was held together by the exceptional stage presence and technical ability of the trumpeter Michael, Henri Deleger. The end of the act sees Michael and his lover Eve, Iris Zerdoud on basset horn, rapturously duetting, metaphorically embracing the whole universe.

Hubert Mayer (Michael) and Iris Zerdoud (Eve) © Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre
Hubert Mayer (Michael) and Iris Zerdoud (Eve)
© Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre

Act 3 is the homecoming of Michael and employs the largest forces thus far, including the choir and multiple layers of electronic music. Stockhausen creates a rich tapestry of sound which at times seemed almost Mahlerian. Visionary elements take over from the human and the final battle between Satan and Michael is on a cosmic level. The final section strips back everything to the three Michaels musing on their life and the mysteries of the universe.

Overall the performance did justice to the work's ambitions with the simplest of stagecraft effects under the clever direction of Benjamin Lazar. The amplification of all the performers and the pre-recorded sound was very successfully managed by Florent Derex. The video projections were never too distracting and were pertinent to the action. All the performers inhabited their roles and the orchestral elements were expertly delivered.

Iris Zerdoud (Eve) © Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre
Iris Zerdoud (Eve)
© Tristram Kenton | Southbank Centre

However, it can’t be denied that Stockhausen also expected there to be elaborate staging and visual effects not possible in the Royal Festival Hall. The result was that some parts of the work needed a lot of imagination on the part of the audience to conjure up the visual splendour that the composer envisaged. Having seen the wonderful sets by Maria Bjørnson for the Covent Garden production in 1985, I was aware how much more could be conveyed with the whole operatic package, but even with these reduced creative forces, the evening left you in no doubt that in Donnerstag aus Licht is more approachable than many would imagine, as well as being a major creative achievement that is crying out to be explored by opera houses.

****1