West Edge Opera Performs Luca Francesconi’s QUARTETT

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday August 19, 2018 - 10:22:00 PM

Stage director Heiner Müller, hailed as the most important theatre director since Bertolt Brecht, at least in Germany, wrote a highly intense, extremely concentrated play, entitled Quartett, based on the incendiary 1782 French novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. In the mid-2010s, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala approached composer Luca Francesconi, inviting him to write an opera based on Müller’s text. Francesconi acknowledges that he found this invitation daunting. However, he accepted the challenge, and, once into it, discovered it was quite a compelling opportunity. The result, Francesconi’s 2016 opera Quartett, has been performed throughout the world, and it now arrives at West Edge Opera in a newly designed staged version by Elkhanah Pulitzer.  

Quartett has all the hallmarks of Mark Streshinsky’s tenure as General Director at West Edge Opera. It is edgy; it deals openly, even brazenly, with sexuality in all its varieties; and it is musically and dramatically very avant garde. Unlike the 1994 version of Les liaisons dangereuses by Conrad Susa, commissioned by San Francisco Opera and starring Frederica von Stade, (a production I found extremely successful), the Francesconi version opts for abstraction rather than realism. (As an aside, I asked Conrad Susa shortly before he died whether any new productions of his Les liaisons dangereuses were forthcoming; and he wistfully replied, much to my disappointment, that the answer was no. I found his opera quite compelling.)  

Compelling in an entirely different way is Luca Francesconi’s Quartett. Francesconi’s music is angular in the extreme, both vocally and orchestrally. It is called Quartett because in this opera two singers act out four different roles in a perverse quartet of sexual games played by debauched individuals. In this West Edge Opera production, the two singers were baritone Hadleigh Adams as Valmont and soprano Heather Buck as the Marquise de Merteuil. West Edge Opera’s two singers, Adams and Buck, were onstage almost constantly throughout the one and-a-half hours of this opera. And they acquitted themselves admirably in these extremely demanding roles. 

Francesconi, who studied with Luciano Berio, creates his Quartett music in multiple layers. There is, of course, the live orchestra; but there is also electronic music that recycles recorded music or earlier live performances. For the conductor, in this case, John Kennedy, it is a difficult but rewarding task keeping these diverse musical tracks in coordination. When I spoke to orchestra members and conductor John Kennedy himself after the August 19 performance of Quartett I attended, they all concurred that more rehearsals would have been useful. But what can you do? It is amazing that a small opera company such as West Edge Opera can even offer a world class production of a contemporary opera such as Quartett. 

That be said, Quartett strikes me as overlong at an hour and-a-half, without intermission; and it also, more critically, strikes me as a bit tedious. Sexual perversions, in their many varieties and gendered role-changes, can be ultimately quite tedious; and, sure enough, after an hour or more of sexual games and gender-bending role-reversals, Quartett became very tiresome and predictable. This opera might have been better off cut by a third. Nonetheless, I think it was a wise and bold move to bring Luca Francesconi’s Quartett to Bay Area audiences; and I congratulate Mark Streshinsky for doing so. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; but Quartett is a contemporaary opera definitely worth our attention.