Feature: Peter Sellars' Kafka Fragments Preview

Barbican, 11 Novemeber, 2010

29 October 2010

by David MichalekThe American theatre director Peter Sellars - celebrated primarily for his pioneering work with John Adams and for his series of controversial Mozart productions in Boston in the 1990s - is bringing his staging of Kurtag's chamber vocal piece Kafka Fragments to the Barbican on November 11.

Consisting of forty independent settings of short epigrams taken from Kafka's letters, diaries and notebooks, the seventy minute piece is scored for soprano and violin and will be performed at the Barbican by Dawn Upshaw, one of the most celebrated sopranos of our time and fresh from a performance of one of her favoured composers' music, Osvaldo Golijov, with Crash in Dublin , and Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and co-founder of the renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet. The production has already played to much acclaim in Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre, amongst other venues.

Of the many interesting things in Kurtag's fragment cycles, perhaps the most signal is the removal of certain types of contrast. In an opera aria (a comparable genre) the material induces the audience to perceive and mimetically participate in some sort of dialectical and cumulative structure. Seven minutes of push and pull and repetition and development ensures this. In Kurtag, in the Kafka Fragments, we have, instead, moments. Even the longer pieces, those at three minutes, shatter into a disunity, or strain during a unity. Yet that momentary dynamic opens up a space of stark clarity. The moment is a cleansing one in these works.

In Peter Sellars' staging the aesthetic of the mundane, appositely for Kafka, is made the scene of revelatory shock. As it was put in a New York Times review of an earlier performance of this production at the Lincoln Centre, 'everyday actions become existential events' in this cycle. As such Sellars' staging is all the more penetrating for so sensitively designing a context sympathetic to the minutiae of the work. It presents a site of the everyday where Upshaw's existentially troubled housewife can, with the benefit of photographic and projected textual enrichments, think out her situation in a heightened setting congenial to the mundane vividity of Kafka's texts, and Kurtag's contexts. Drabness and acid sit alongside each other in this staging, making a peculiar coincidence for the similar admixture shared between text and music.

Each song fragment, some seconds long, some a few minutes, distinct from each other musically and emotionally yet conjoined by an infinite and piercing light, coheres around, in the director's words, 'a crystalline and blazing moment'. The moment is dense and condensed, sharply-hewed and gypsy-intense - the gypsy aspect shorn up by the stark instrumentation of violin and voice, and by the musical enhancements taken from its idiom. Yet we never gain purchase on these motifs as pastiche or homage. This music does not permit much purchase on anything at all, at least in the expected way, and that is its point.

The fragments are excised of growth, contrast, crescendo, and decay. Everything colludes to the sharpened flash of recognition, to the flicker of life. This concert should not be missed.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Dawn Upshaw in the Sellars production by David Michalek

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