As with Cage, so with Stockhausen: composers who upset the musical establishment are told their music will not survive them. On Sunday I was at the new production of Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel. This version featured many performers from a new generation who brought out the depth and feeling within Stockhausen’s score and made the many technical demands seem natural to them. Stockhausen’s legacy continues to propagate without his physical presence.
As the first opera written in the Licht cycle Donnerstag is the most conventional, although already straining at the limitations of the opera hall. It foreshadows how later parts open out into the world while also immersing the audience deeper into a less compromising insistence on his idiosyncratic cosmology. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the opera is a work of transformation. In unison with Michael’s emergence from the appearance of a relatable, if not typical, childhood into a spiritual presence in the universe, the matter of the opera steadily leads us from drama to religious contemplation. The music moves from drama to symbolic explication and meditation. Stockhausen’s later music has a remarkable ability to convey elements commonly associated with minimal music – timelessness, communion – while still generous and abundant with activity and detail. The soloists, chorus and orchestra in Basel all carried this duality beautifully.
Tragically, the staging of this production was incapable of escaping its earthbound origins, in conception and in execution. At critical points it betrayed a failure of nerve, with fatal consequences. The Greeting in the foyer and the first act started with intrigue and promise, establishing the material foundations of Michael’s first appearance (even though the Greeting’s 70s lounge suits didn’t connect with the Act I’s tracht and dirndl). Things go horribly wrong during Michael’s examinations at the end of the first act, which here were perversely interpreted as medical examinations as Michael succumbs to madness, same as his mother. The second act, Michael’s Journey Around the World, is thus set in a mental hospital; or rather, a 1970s caricature of a mental hospital. The ensuing antics are hackneyed and the use of mental illness to explain away Michael’s journeys and encounters is the middlebrow version of the tired old fallback of “it was all just a dream”. The whole second act becomes something of a bummer, which I’m pretty sure should never be the desired affect in a Stockhausen opera.
Throughout the opera, the scene returns to a dumbshow repetition of Michael’s childhood. Even in the third act Michael cannot move on from this display, and so the transformative essence of the opera is lost. This failure of Michael’s becomes a failure of this production. The director has taken a 1970s religious opera and regressed it to a 1930s expressionist psychodrama.
To honestly address Stockhausen’s operatic vision, one must fully commit to it – however bizarre it may be – if it is to work at all. Time after time this staging pulled its punches, retreating to a comfort zone of irony and psychology instead of grappling with the thornier issue of how to present a 21st century mystery play and the difficult implications of taking the text seriously. In Act II and the first half of the third act the action often becomes muddled, fussy and fidgety, as though to distract from the music. Michael’s homecoming in Act III is undermined by prolonged stage business which resorts to simply disregarding what is being sung.
Things on stage improve greatly when genuine conflict is introduced on stage through Stockhausen’s own libretto, as Michael confronts various manifestations of Luzifer. Finally, the action on stage returns to illuminating the music. The concluding scene is also handled very well, at last allowing the audience to focus in stillness on what has gone before. By this time the production has almost redeemed itself. Even here, though, the various personifications of Michael appear as in youth, from the first act. The director just cannot move on.
You can set the New Testament in a bowling alley in space for all I care, but if you present the Gospel as the story of one man’s journey to overcome obstacles in search of self-fulfilment then it will seem worse than strange, it will seem shallow and ignorant. No new light is shed.
So often in the Licht cycle Stockhausen takes banal and simplistic scenarios and somehow manages to elevate them through his music and his sense of experience shared through an audience. Too often this staging in Basel took elements of the mystical and fantastic and beat them down into the banal.