A first impression of Quartett, a 2011 chamber opera composed by Luca Francesconi and staged by Àlex Ollé (of the innovative Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus), may be that it presents an unapologetically modernist take on the Liaisons dangereuses story which will impenetrably hang together as some fearsomely Teutonic total artwork. But beyond a strain of radical music-theatre common in – if not exclusive to – postwar Europe, it does not succumb so readily to easy categorization.

Allison Cook and Robin Adams in Quartett; photo by Rudy Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
Allison Cook and Robin Adams in Quartett; photo by Rudy Amisano
© Teatro alla Scala

The action of the piece is pared down to the two loathsome antagonists, and the set (a black box with distorted vanishing points, suspended in the middle of the stage) is described as their emotional prison. In the spirit of the Heiner Müller play of the same name, used here more or less wholesale as a libretto, there is little in the way of narrative or character development, just a violent battle of sexual power in which graphic statements that might titillate elsewhere (innuendo on the level of ‘Paradise has three entrances’) make a shocking, inhumane impact.

One thinks of the bearing Otto Weininger’s theories in Sex and Character had on Schoenberg and Berg, and a musical treatment comes to mind for this type of material which Francesconi doesn’t stray too far from. Though not quoted accurately, there was at one point an extended reference to Lulu (the music associated with Dr Schön), which can only have been made knowingly; this also led to the only quasi-tonal theme of the work, which bore a resemble to Lulu’s lyrical sonata coda theme. Elsewhere the rapidly darting movements of Francesconi’s score – and movement does seem to be the idea, since microphones and taped sounds give the spatial perception of music flying through the air, much like the gratuitous barbs Valmont and Merteuil hurl at each other – are molded around the disjunctive dialogue and episodic course of events it gives rise to. Certain motivic strains become established as themes and reappear throughout the piece, though continuities here are a matter for a second hearing; in some respects it is easier to pin meaning to timbre, as with the sexually charged use of percussion (recalling the dangerous allure of Peter Quint’s celesta motif in The Turn of the Screw). In what I imagine to be a reference to Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les liaisons dangereuses, there is also much anachronistic use of the harpsichord.

Though relatively short, Quartett poses formidable technical challenges for its two singers, and both were impressive even if Allison Cook’s voice – somewhat thin and squally at the top, with wobbly vibrato – is not something one would listen to for tonal beauty. Robin Adams, a baritone with the slightly covered quality of an English tenor, was vocally stronger despite some forgivable moments of strain, though I found him less of a compelling singing actor than Cook. Peter Rundel conducted sensitively and seemed to have Francesconi’s fractured and fast-moving phantasmagoria well internalized. Despite the occasional fluff, the musicians (a chamber ensemble drawn from members of the La Scala orchestra) played sharply with good phrasing and balance.