Photo, Sisi Burn

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

Commissioned by and premiered at La Scala on November 15, 2018, conducted by Markus Stenz (some pre-performance articles at the time cited Ingo Metzmacher as the maestro; Pierre Audi directed), the first opera by Hungarian composer György Kurtág (born 1926) – fully titled as Samuel Beckett: Fin de partie: scènes et monologues, opéra en un acte – here made its UK debut. Requiring four singers and orchestra (including two accordions, and a continuo group of grand & upright pianos, harp, cimbalom and celesta), the synopsis is as follows:

The setting is a house by the sea, where four people reside:

  • Hamm, an elderly gentleman confined to a wheelchair
  • Clov, servant to Hamm, who cannot sit down
  • Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s very old parents, each trapped in a dustbin, without legs

The tensions between the four characters exasperate each of them:

  • Hamm cannot abide his parents and their chatter.
  • Nell can barely tolerate Nagg.
  • Clov regards the others wearily.

All four wait for an end to the inertia and claustrophobia of their situation.

  1. Prologue: Nell is the first character to appear, and delivers the setting of ‘Roundelay’ to begin the opera. Her words hazily allude to memories, with the sound of footsteps as the only sound to be heard on the beach.
  2. Clov’s Pantomime: Clov and Hamm appear. Clov is troubled and uneasy on his legs. He makes repetitive gestures, the same gestures every day, during his domestic chores, interspersed with short, nervous laughter.
  3. Clov’s First Monologue: Clov speaks of the possibility that the current situation may come to some sort of end soon.
  4. Hamm’s First Monologue: by contrast, Hamm thinks about his and his parents’ sufferings. With feelings of despondency and exhaustion, he claims that he cannot resolve the current circumstances.
  5. Bin: Nagg and Nell, both severely handicapped, are tired out from their long-term bickering, and their mutual incomprehension. During their conversation, they recall the cycling accident in the Ardennes that caused them both to lose their legs. Memories also surface of a boat trip on Lake Como. These memories are their sole happy memories and, at least superficially, give them a little nostalgia for their life spent together. Yet, Hamm, who wants to sleep, finds his parents’ chatter irritating, and orders Clov to throw the bins, including Nagg and Nell, into the sea. Nell dies in the meantime, apparently unnoticed by the others.
  6. Novel: Hamm wants to tell Nagg a story. In past days, a father had come to him on Christmas Eve asking for bread for his son. Hamm had decided to take him on.
  7. Nagg’s Monologue: Nagg remembers when Hamm was young and needed him.
  8. Hamm’s Penultimate Monologue: Hamm ponders his difficult relations with others.
  9. Hamm and Clov’s Dialogue: Hamm asks Clov for his tranquilliser. Clov replies that no tranquillisers are left.
  10. “It’s over, Clov” and Clov’s Vaudeville: Hamm tells Clov that he no longer needs him, but then asks Clov to say something that he may remember before departing. Clov remarks that Hamm had never spoken to him until that moment. Only now, as he is about to leave, does Hamm pay any notice of him.
  11. Clov’s Last Monologue: Clov reflects on his condition. He has never understood what words like ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ mean. He also feels old, tired, and unable to form new habits. He is bound to his repetitive, never-changing daily routine.
  12. Transition to the Finale: Hamm thanks Clov as Clov is about to leave.
  13. Hamm’s Last Monologue: Clov is about to leave, but has not yet moved. Hamm realises that he has been left alone.

Epilogue: Hamm grasps that it is now up to him – and him alone – to continue playing the endgame.

Musically, the work is compelling, with expressive writing for the singers and carefully gauged use of numerous instruments and varied dynamics, not least subito fortissimos, in what is essentially a slow-moving yet tension-filled opera of character-drawing, sometimes with a dry wit or heartfelt poignancy, and correspondences to late Stravinsky and Webernian clarity. Three of the cast have been involved from the beginning (Morgan Moody joining later) and Ryan Wigglesworth has had intensive study of the score with Kurtág. In turn, this continuous one-hour-fifty-minute performance was exactingly prepared, the exposed orchestral writing played with total assurance as an integral part of the scenario and complementary to personalities. Keenly awaited, this Prom did not disappoint.

Frode Olsen …. Hamm
Morgan Moody …. Clov
Hilary Summers …. Nell
Leonardo Cortellazzi …. Nagg

Semi-staging by Victoria Newlyn