György Kurtág is the most fascinating of contemporary composers. With his Kafka Fragments (1987), the master of Webernesque brevity pulls splinters – short paragraphs, sentences and, in one case, a single word – from the letters, diaries and poems of Franz Kafka and sets them to a typically sparse and spiky violin accompaniment.
American director Peter Sellars takes an equally characteristic approach to staging the work, with soprano Dawn Upshaw acting out a scenario of domestic angst as a (German-singing) US housewife doing her daily chores.
The music serves Sellars’ purposes very well but the reverse isn’t always true. At times Upshaw’s movements echo the sounds of Geoff Nuttall’s solo violin, turning Kurtág’s score into a soundtrack to a wholly invented theatrical context. While Kurtág illuminates Sellars, the direction often literalises and diminishes the bald abstraction of the composer’s intentions.
Sellars seizes on certain references to cleanliness peppered through the texts (“Out of Kafka’s sense that he is always unclean comes this idea of wanting and needing to cleanse’” he tells us in a programme note) and domesticises them, so that we see Upshaw scrubbing, sweeping and rinsing away the elliptical nature of the words and music.
Another layer is added with projections more readily relevant to Sellars than Kafka/Kurtág but less intrusive and cheesy than those for the director’s Tristan und Isolde, seen recently at the Royal Festival Hall.
Singer and violinist perform well enough and the interventions are not enough to distract completely from an enjoyable, and at times moving, evening of music-making. We’ll have to wait until the New Year (when soprano Juliane Banse is reunited with Andras Keller at the Wigmore Hall) to see how much more effective Kurtág’s song cycle can be when performed with a greater focus on the original work.
- Simon Thomas