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A chamber opera blown up to impressive proportions at @hollandfestival

Holland Festival Holland Festival

,,The special thing about Quartett is that an intimate story between two people is blown up to impressive proportions. The characters find themselves in a room, which seems to float. In this seclusion, an isolated game between a man and a woman plays out. Giant video projections and a combination of a live orchestra and electronics create a great spatial effect. As a result, the intimacy explodes and extends to the full size of the hall."

Jochem Valkenburg is music and music theatre programmer at the Holland Festival. After artistic director Pierre Audi premiered the 2011 musical theatre production Quartett had attended at the Scala in Milan and Valkenburg saw it the following year in Vienna during the Vienna Festwochen, a long preliminary process began to bring the production to Amsterdam as well. Valkenburg had no doubts, but he also saw that there were considerable problems to be solved before the performance could take place here.

,,It was really a production for the Scala. The structure is not made for travelling past other theatres with it. Sometimes we programme operas that are ready to be performed in the festival. But with Quartett had to reinvent every aspect from start to finish. That floating cube, how do you place that thing here in the auditorium? We had a huge amount of work on it, the production department in the lead."

,,Yet in the end, few adjustments were needed. The height was a problem, but the Gashouder offers the space for it. We have a week to build everything up for the premiere on 1 June."

"Besides live music from the orchestra in the orchestra pit, there is a soundtrack created by composer Luca Francesconi in Paris, at IRCAM, an institute for electro-acoustic music. The soundtrack was made with orchestra and choir. That choir is not physically present, only on the soundtrack. That soundtrack gives it a strong spatial effect. It's 'surround sound'."


,,Quartett is a chamber opera and also literally plays in a little room. It is a story of intrigue with love and passion. The characters play a kind of role-playing game and put psychological pressure on each other. With video projections measuring 18 x 10 metres and music impressively depicting the turbulent psychological lives of the two, it zooms in on the backstory that takes place in the room."

Quartett is based on a play of the same name by Heiner Müller, which in turn is based on Les liaisons dangereuses of Choderlos de Laclos. Many characters appear in this epistolary novel. Müller has reduced the number to four. Two of them do not appear in person, but the two people we do see temporarily switch roles: a play within a play. Thus, the elaborate plot is reduced to just two people. ''That the two are locked in a small room has the effect of a kind of pressure cooker. A huge dynamic is built up, from which they cannot escape. That creates a tremendous constriction, nervousness and high emotional density. They put each other under pressure, push each other's limits They bring out the worst in each other. They get so absorbed in their role-play that they forget it is only a role-play and lose all contact with reality."

Heiner Müller situated the story in a bunker after World War III, while there are also references to the time of the French Revolution, when the aristocracy became isolated. Similarly, the characters in Quartett detached from the outside world. They sit on each other's lips and drive each other crazy. The intensity and overwhelming projections suck the audience into that little room.


,,We deliberately tried our best to get the same production here as the one at the Scala in Milan. We wanted to have a production from the most famous opera house in the world in the Holland Festival. So it's the same orchestra, the same conductor, the same singers. The latter was an absolute must. Allison Cook and Robin Adams are fantastic. Allison Cook in particular is a star."

,,Francesconi's music is beautiful in every way. I find that in many modern operas the vocal parts are an underrated child. Modern composers are very concerned with the grand dramaturgy, with the sound of it all, and then the vocal line sometimes unfortunately becomes something marginal. This is not the case with Francesconi. You can hear in him that typical Italian sensitivity to the voice, very natural and expressive. And he lets that connect beautifully with his instrumental sound."

,,Quartett is for me a particularly successful example of what you can see in the 21ste century of expression can be found in an ancient form like opera. I wouldn't normally say that Francesconi's music is suitable for a wide audience. It is complex music, rich and layered, sometimes extremely nuanced. So many shades and nuances simply put some people off. But the combination of the music with the beautiful image and a recognisable story means that many people can still get into it. It works the same way with film music. Film music is often much more complicated than people realise when they watch a film. If you were to let them hear that music in a concert hall, it would make them feel uncomfortable. In Quartett it works the same way, but in reverse. It is progressive music, but precisely in a production like this, with that fantastic image, with good singers, in the setting of the Gashouder, I think the audience has a very good entrance to that music, which might otherwise be too difficult."

Good to know
Quartett, composition Luca Francesconi, production La Scala, Milan Za 1 & Sun 2 June, 8:30pm, Westergasfabriek, Gashouder. With an introduction on Sun 2 June, 19:45 at Cinema Het Ketelhuis

Maarten Baanders

Free-lance arts journalist Leidsch Dagblad. Until June 2012 employee Marketing and PR at the LAKtheater in Leiden.View Author posts

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