Nobody familiar with the music of the Hungarian composer György Kurtág would have expected to emerge from his new opera Endgame waltzing down Exhibition Road whistling the tunes. Nor could anyone (except perhaps Kurtág) familiar with Samuel Beckett’s nihilistic play of the same name, on which the opera is based, have imagined that anything operatic, in the conventional sense, could be made of the text.
Kurtág, now 97, worked on the piece for some eight years, and it has been described as the pinnacle of his life’s work. He was too frail to attend either the stage premiere at La Scala in 2018 or last night’s UK premiere. This was billed as a major Proms event, and so it was, albeit a compromised one.
There are four characters: the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm, his resentful servant Clov, and Hamm’s senile, legless parents Nagg and Nell, who inhabit rubbish bins.
First, the positives. Kurtág’s score is everything one would expect from the master: exquisitely jewelled sonorities, musical gestures distilled to their very essence, every note charged with significance – the perfect analogue for the existential dimension of Beckett’s fragmented text.
There are many spellbinding moments, including a passage for sustained winds over gentle timpani beats at Clov’s “I’ll weep for happiness” and a refulgent brass-topped ensemble sequence as Hamm finally covers his face with his handkerchief.
Dramaturgically, however, there are problems. Kurtág has used only 60 per cent of Beckett’s text. Fair enough, but for reasons known only to himself, he has in the process gutted it of dramatic tension. Beckett’s play centres on the relationship between Hamm and Clov, but we’re 75 minutes into the two-hour opera before there’s any meaningful interaction between them.
Even then, because there’s virtually no dialogue left, Clov can do little more, in Victoria Newlyn’s semi-staging, than stand fecklessly scratching his head. Hedging his bets perhaps, Kurtág has subtitled the work ‘Scenes and monologues; opera in one act’.
All too faithful to Kurtág’s counter-intuitive reworking of the play, Newlyn placed Nagg, Nell and their rubbish bins centre stage, with Hamm in his wheelchair to the right. This had the effect of making the parents far more central to the proceedings than they deserve, while Hamm, who should be the focus of attention, was relegated to the sidelines. To add a further layer of obfuscation, especially for the radio audience, the opera was sung, arguably unavoidably, in the original French, with English surtitles.
Frode Nelson (Hamm), Morgan Moody (Clov), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg) and Hilary Summers (Nell) all acquitted themselves superbly, as did the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth.
The four characters leave the “action”, such as it is, one by one. The ending of their relationships, their miserable existence and indeed the play itself have been continually delayed.
I was glad to be there, but wondered if the intermittent exiting of audience members could perhaps be seen as a metatheatrical comment on the work’s underlying theme.