Freitag aus Licht in Paris

Monday 12 December 2022

Stockhausen’s grand Licht cycle of cosmic mediaeval mystery plays get hardest to follow when he’s trying to explain what it all means. At their best, the theosophical tableaux he presents do their work on an immediate, sensory level, but when he wants to show how all the elements relate to each other you can get bogged down. I’d been looking forward to Le Balcon’s staging of Freitag aus Licht, because it’s a Stockhausen opera and Le Balcon have done a great job on a modest budget with previous parts of the cycle, but also to see how it handles one of the less likeable instalments. Freitag is the one in the cycle which gets stick for its evidently hokey “natural pairings” of objects as a conceptual framework for its theatrical and philosophical premise (cat and dog, foot and ball, needle and arm etc.) which persist throughout the performance, but for me the problem had always been that, on record, the opera sounds unusually flat.

In this staging, the issue was in some ways a little better but in others a little worse. Part of Stockhausen’s grand conception of Freitag was that three layers of drama were to be presented simultaneously throughout the opera, rather than in succession. The side effect is that it all sounds somewhat undifferentiated, particularly with the droney electronic score of synth merged with sampled voices that forms the entrance music in the lobby, plays through all the scenes and then again in the lobby as you leave. When you return to your seat after the interval for part two and the low, buzzy synths start up again you can’t help but feel a small sinking sensation in your stomach. Things pick up a little, and the final chorus is gorgeous, but the whole affair struggles to attain the feeling of transformation and transcendence that arises through the other four Licht operas I’ve experienced. Worst of all, the “sound scenes” focused on the electronic score are the first time I’ve felt like Stockhausen was spinning things out as he rang the changes on all the permutations his system implied.

It didn’t help that the staging was not immersive, presented on a conventional concert stage where the audience looked on, as back with his first opera composed in the cycle. The greeting and farewell are also impersonal. Compared to other parts of the cycle, it couldn’t help but feel distant, a demonstration more than an embodiment of Stockhausen’s skewed vision. That said, his musical writing was beautiful and clear as ever, sticking to his strengths of voices and winds (apart from an appearance by a children’s orchestra of flutes, clarinets, violin and cello, the only other acoustic instruments are a solo flute and bassett horn). Le Balcon’s singers and musicians (listed here) nailed the right blend of hieratic stillness with personal warmth. The role of Synthibird was split into two Keytar-slinging messengers dressed like they were moonlighting from a Jodorowsky film, which was also pretty boss. It’s tempting to say the children stole the show, but that would be unfair to both them and the others: they were integral to making it all work to the extent it did. As orchestra, chorus (Stockhausen really doesn’t dumb down his musical language for them), chorus-turned-dancers, with additional children pressed into service as mimes for the duration in this interpretation, they all excelled. Thanks to them (and their parents in the hall) it got a rousing ovation at the end, which was the most uplifting part of the night.