Transforming a Cold War dystopian drama into a visionary, immersive opera is a task that might well defeat the faint-hearted. Not so Luca Francesconi, the composer of Quartett. Much acclaimed upon its premiere at La Scala, Milan three years ago, the work sets Heiner Müller’s 1980 play of the same title as an opera for two singers plus a cutting-edge mix of live and pre-recorded instrumentation.
The play is based partly on Les liaisons dangereuses by Laclos, but takes place in a concrete bunker in which the protagonists are the last people left alive after World War III. They convey multiple realities as Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil undergo an intense succession of role-play. Francesconi has created a range of music to match and John Fulljames, the Royal Opera House’s associate director of opera, has been tasked with the work’s first UK production, about to open at the ROH’s Linbury Studio.
“It’s an extraordinary play – dark, ambiguous and open in terms of the way it’s staged,” says Fulljames. “The drama goes from the most intimate to the most epic and the most political: these two trapped people are somehow the entirety of humanity. The political ambition as well as the emotional ambition of the work is extraordinarily high.”
Francesconi, the Italian former pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen, radical pioneer of electronic music, has made the most of today’s music technologies, using them to enhance and transform the work’s message. Two orchestras are involved: one plays live, and the second is pre-recorded, sampled, treated, and then, Fulljames suggests, its sounds seem to slide over the heads of the audience: “The aural landscape and what it demands technically creates a new possibility for opera,” he says.
“I think it’s that second orchestra that makes the audience feel as if they’re immersed in the middle of the piece, even though they’re watching it at a distance,” he adds. “They are implicated within it, trapped in its soundworld. That is a very different idea of what opera is, rather than the traditional architecture where we sit in our seats and it takes place over there...”
The pre-recorded orchestra also adds the element of hope that is absent from Müller’s play. “The live orchestra is very much associated with the two people in the bunker, but the pre-recorded one is more environmental, representing what’s happening in the outside world,” says Fulljames. “It’s the waves, the wind, amoebas, other life forms which will keep growing and reproducing. Life inside the bunker is dying, but Francesconi finds hope in the idea that the universe, the ecosystem, will carry on breathing.”
Despite all this innovation Quartett is, in Fulljames’s view, a deeply operatic experience. “Opera has always worked best when it’s raw and visceral, dealing with emotional extremity – and this one does,” he says. “I think anyone who enjoys operatic storytelling will get a great deal from it.”
Quartett, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 18-28 June. Box office: 020 7304 4000