György Kurtág’s opera Fin de partie (The Endgame) was a great success at the Garnier Opera in Paris as well. The first reviews highlight its humanity.
The world-famous Hungarian composer’s first opera, based on Samuel Beckett’s drama of the same name, premiered in November 2018 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the French-language one-act work will be performed in Paris between 30 April and 19 May. According to Le Monde, the French performance confirmed even more than the premiere in Milan that the Kurtág opera is a masterpiece. Which, according to the leading French daily newspapaer, is remarkable because the Hungarian composer was in his nineties when he completed his first opera.
“Kurtág’s music lends a profound humanity to the nihilism of an Irish composer who contemplates the end of humanity, the death of language, and the disappearance of all property, with nostalgic strings and the piercing sounds of winds, joined by popular echoes of waltzes, tangos, and accordions,” wrote Marie-Aude Roux.
The critic pointed out that by incorporating elements of the Irish-Scottish Jewish ballad and Hungarian folk music, Kurtág created a complex world of musical and rhythmic structures and sounds, in which there are references to modern French music (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Messiaen), and the Central European music of Bartók, Strauss or Berg.
The cultural weekly Télérama also reckoned that Beckett’s dark vision of the world was “mixed with Kurtág’s humanism.” According to the newspaper, it is a huge challenge to turn a play into an opera, but after the news that praised the premiere in Milan, there was no need to worry. According to Le Figaro, since the death of Pierre Boulez, György Kurtág is “the most influential living composer who will leave the most lasting mark.”
The website of the French public television stressed that although this is Kurtág’s first opera, the Hungarian composer has been composing works for the human voice for decades, in Russian, German and English, as well as in Hungarian, and his works are inspired by the great poets of world literature, and in recent years he has also written other works in French. And for one of his best-known work, a composition for piano Games (Játékok), he drew on Hungarian folk music like other Hungarian composers such as Bartók, Kodály, or Ligeti did, sometimes with unexpected sounds, using accordion, percussion, or the “Hungarian instrument par excellence”, the cimbalom. The opera, carefully written in the nontonal dimension, is the perfect vocal counterpoint to Beckett’s phrases.
The 96-year-old composer’s first opera is based on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play The Endgame, written in French by the Irish composer and first performed in Paris in 1957. In connection with the Milan premiere, the Kossuth Prize-winning composer said that he saw Beckett’s play in Paris in 1957, a few months after its premiere, and that the play had a life-changing impact on him. The play is a key work of the Theatre of the Absurd, in which Beckett depicted the destruction of human personality as it disintegrates at the hour of death as the final moves in a game of chess.
Kurtág composed a two-hour work from the absurdist drama, using key episodes from the original work, working up more than half of the complete piece, and wrote a prologue as well. This is the longest work by the composer who is considered to be the master of miniatures.
The opera was presented in Paris in the same version as in Milan, directed by the French-Lebanese Pierre Audi, with set and costume design by the Austrian Christof Hetzer. The Paris Opera Orchestra is conducted by German conductor Markus Stenz. The original cast of four singers, Frode Olsen (Hamm), Leigh Melrose (Clov), Hilary Summers (Nell), and Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg), will also take to the stage, with “no weakening of their performances since Milan,” according to Le Monde.
György Kurtág started working on the opera at the request of Alexander Pereira around 2010, when Pereira had been the intendant of the Salzburg Festival and later became the intendant of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The composer, who lived in France between 1999 and 2015, completed the opera in 2017, after moving home to Budapest.