Karlheinz Stockhausen - Samstag aus Licht
Le Balcon - Paris, 2019
Maxime Pascal, Damien Bigourdan, Damien Pass, Alphonse Cemin, Henri Deléger, François-Xavier Plancqueel, Mathieu Adam, Ayumi Taga
Philharmonie de Paris, 28 & 29 June 2019
Opera has evolved considerably as an artform over the last 400 years, partly due to its very nature of incorporating a wide range of disciplines, from poetry and writing to dancing and singing, dramatic theatre and spectacle, and evidently music. As each of those disciplines have developed over the centuries so too has opera incorporated this growth, and some of the greatest opera composers have been those that have embraced change and actually extended those disciplines further into new areas. At heart however what has remained important is the ability of those works to express something about humanity that relates to their own personal experience and vision and find a complete operatic expression for it.
Quite where Karlheinz Stockhausen fits into people's conception of great composers is undoubtedly a matter of taste and changing perceptions, but there can be little doubt that he pushed music into previously unimaginable zones like no-one else. In opera too he created one of the most extraordinary and original, not to mention challenging and controversial opera works ever written in the 29 hour long, 7-day opera cycle Licht, 'Light'. Evidently few have had the opportunity to see that work performed and staged in its entirety, but Maxime Pascal and Le Balcon took on that ambitious task on 2018, starting with a production of Donnerstag aus Licht, 'Thursday from Light'.
As you might expect from a radically experimental composer like Stockhausen no two works in the cycle are going to be alike and certainly Samstag takes a very different approach from the mysticism of Donnerstag with its comprehensive globe-spanning worldview of the battle between Good and Evil and, from the semi-autobiographical elements within, presumably a similar battle within Stockhausen himself. Written in 1984, the second work in the Licht cycle, Samstag serves the function of a day of transition, a liberation from one state of being to the next, the liberation of the soul from mortal restraints, which for Lucifer means the death of humanity. In one respect however Samstag aus Licht still very much adheres to the underlying philosophy that music can illuminate and save the world through its Light (Licht), specifically if you like through Stockhausen's music and his self-image as the Saviour of the Earth.
It's the predominance and importance of music and ritual as a liberating force that immediately strikes the listener and indicates the overall tone of Samstag aus Licht. Its opening fanfare of Luzifers-Gruss (Lucifer's Greeting), is followed by a long solo piano opening Luzifers-Traum (Lucifer's Dream) section. Having been resisted by Michael through the power of his music in Donnerstag, Lucifer - sung by bass Damien Pass - is of course not completely eradicated from Earth and his dreams take on form in music that soothes his wounds and fills him with strength again. Music likewise is very much a character in Samstag aus Licht as it was in Donnerstag aus Licht, and Stockhausen blurs the lines as to where one discipline ends and another begins in the expression of a character or even a theme.
The second scene in Samstag for example involves a black cat Kathinka who plays 24 pieces on the flute as a requiem for Lucifer (Kathinkas-Gesang als Luzifers-Requiem). The music is accompanied by singing into the flute in places, while six percussionists representing the six mortal senses ('thought' being the sixth sense) play 'magical' instruments. Damien Bigourdan and Maxime Pascal capture the fluid musical qualities and expression superbly for the Le Balcon production, visually representing the music and the ritualistic side of the unconventional requiem to Satan, the percussionists dispersed around the auditorium of the Philharmonie in Paris. Once the senses are liberated however, despite the requiem performed in his name, Lucifer proves to still be very much alive.
Part Three, Luzifers-Tanz (Lucifer's Dance), illustrates quite literally how different and strikingly original Stockhausen's approach to opera is in its utter disregard for convention, choosing rather to exploit its endless possibilities far beyond its normal range. Stockhausen refuses to accept any limits to expression (see the Helicopter String Quartet from Mittwoch aus Licht as another extreme example) in order to represent something that takes place on a higher cosmic level. The different sections of the orchestra are all directed to form the face of Lucifer piece by piece, building it up on sections musically with instructions from Lucifer himself.
That takes some imagination not only to stage but stage and play effectively in a way that summons up the necessary character and ritualistic aspect of this scene. It's superbly visualised by Nieto here with live projections overlaying the ranged players on the various levels of La Philharmonie moving to the twitches of eyebrows and rolling of eyes. Michael as a trumpet player challenges Lucifer but proves unable to set himself against the renewed force of evil. This is opera but very much not how anyone else does it.
So to follow that, the dance descends into a cacophony, the musicians protest and walk off the stage and the final part of Samstag, Luzifers-Abschied (Lucifer's Farewell) takes place in the nearest church. Here it's the Ëglise Saint-Jacques Saint Christophe de la Villette, where 13+13 bass and 13 tenor Franciscan monks sing St Francis of Assisi's 13 part Hymn to the Virtues with increasing intensity as they run around the church. After the ritual to banish the blasts of a row of diabolic trombonists, a caged wild bird is released and the monks smash 39 coconuts (no, really) on the steps outside the church in a solemn vow of purification. Bells, clacking of clogs, hammering of wood instruments, some organ, clapping and Gregorian-like chants; again full use is made of spacial surround to envelop the audience in the sound experience, bringing this extraordinary rarely performed work that is completely unlike anything else to a solemn but fervent and slightly manic conclusion.
Aside from the traditional opera characteristics of narrative, theatre and music, there is clearly much more to a performance of any of the works of the Licht cycle than that, which is of course why Stockhausen's innovation in his musical direction is so important. Maxime Pascal refers to Licht being Stockhausen's attempt to make the sound an invisible force and why the use of spacial dispersion of sound is important. The impact of that is quite noticeable when this is heard live with music and sounds bombarding you invisibly from all sides. It's something that takes more than just rationalisation or interpretation, it very much needs to be immersively experienced to be truly felt. Even watching it as a streamed recording it's clear that Samstag is an extraordinary work in a unique and absorbing cycle of operas.
Stockhausen doesn't appear to leave much room for reinterpretation of his work as there are precise instructions and an element of ritual throughout Licht, but the subjects themselves demand a personal response on the part of the creatives as much as the audience. Maxime Pascal and the Le Balcon are fortunately among the finest ensembles promoting new music and the championing of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. With full-scale productions of Donnerstag and Samstag from the Licht cycle completed now, their dedication and fidelity to Stockhausen's monumental vision has so far proved to be impressive and revelatory. This is proving to be one of the most important opera projects of our time.
Links: Philharmonie de Paris Live, Le Balcon, Licht Paris