AMSTERDAM – György Kurtág seems to have spent most of his musical life in preparation for his first opera. His Fin de Partie (Endgame, Beckett’s translation of his French original) took root in 1957, in Paris, when he first saw Beckett’s masterpiece. He waited until the 1990’s to set any of Beckett’s texts and finally began composing his Endgame opera in 2010. Continual postponements led to fears it would never be finished. It may still not be; there has been talk of Kurtág filling out some of the 40 percent of the play’s text that he didn’t set, although others consider this the definitive version. (For the record, the opera begins with a setting of Beckett’s poem “Roundelay.”)
The score was repeatedly announced for Salzburg when Alexander Pereira directed that festival. Eventually he and it moved to La Scala, where the opera received its first performance on Nov. 15. It then moved to its co-producer, the Dutch National Opera, where it completed a three-performance run on March 10. (I saw it on March 8.)
A more perfect marriage of text and music could hardly be imagined. Almost as perfect as the love of Nell and Nagg, who live out their lives in adjacent garbage cans – or indeed of Kurtág and his wife Márta, who for seven decades has been his indispensable helpmate in composition and performance.
Beckett resisted musical settings of his words, which he considered music enough all by themselves. The only other Beckett opera seems to be Morton Feldman’s Neither. It’s evocative but a monologue, setting a short text that Beckett scrawled on an envelope. Fin de Partie is the real deal, a full-length opera (two hours without intermission) to a major Beckett play.
Kurtág’s Fin de Partie is a last, loving farewell to the era of 20th-century high modernism, now long since succeeded by different idioms and ideas of what classical composition might be. Yet Kurtág’s idiom hardly feels dated. Like Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise, Kurtág sums up all his own musical past but also the tributaries that flowed into his own utterly individual style: the eloquent recitatives of Monteverdi and Debussy, the lapidary concision of Webern, the vivid coloration of Messiaen himself. Along with, maybe, Mahler’s high seriousness and folkish charm and Berg’s tragic intensity. One could go on and on, ticking off the monuments of musical modernism.
Aside from Nell and Nagg, the two other characters are the obsequious Clov and the grandly authoritative Hamm, blind and confined to his wheelchair; their very names hint at Beckett’s wry humor, along with their co-dependency. The four of them play out their endgame in a house by the sea, bickering and repeating themselves and interjecting sly shafts of humor to lighten the darkness. Kurtág’s cuts to the play’s text have mostly to do with repeats, but Beckett’s essence certainly remains, whether or not Kurtág goes ahead and composes still more of the play.
Kurtág’s music has long been concise; in that respect he most overtly resembles Webern. Yet as the opera goes on, the music seems to expand, wrapping the characters and their lines in warm, elegiac sadness. By the end – maybe throughout – it is very, very beautiful.
The production by Holland’s Pierre Audi – who also runs the Park Avenue Armory, but I have heard no rumors of its coming to New York – was the same as in Milan. Christof Hetzer did the décor and costumes, to this taste slightly too glitzy; dusty decay might be more to the point. Markus Stenz authoritatively conducted the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, with Frode Olsen as the commanding Hamm, Leigh Melrose as the craven Clov, and Hilary Summers and Leonardo Cortellazzi as Nell and Nagg.
It’s hard to envision Fin de Partie running in cheerful repertory with La Bohème and Faust. But it remains a lonely and proud sentinel, the last, towering achievement of a bygone modernist age.
Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter, and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra, and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.