Michael Levinas: La Metamorphose
Opera de Lille

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: The Portrait
Leeds Grand Theatre

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, April 1

The works of Franz Kafka continue to enjoy a rich and diverse musical life, but operatic treatments have been relatively rare. This might seem surprising, bearing in mind the writer’s prominent position in the canon of literary modernism – a canon which composers have taken particularly seriously. At the same time, one can see how the dryness of Kafka’s prose, and the matter-offact way in which the unravelling of subjectivity is depicted, might sit at odds with the more heart-on-sleeve emotionalism usually found in opera. In setting Kafka’s novella,

The Metamorphosis, Michaël Levinas’s approach has been to sidestep this problem altogether. Matter of factness, of any kind, is completely missing. In its place is an unswerving musical and philosophical focus on the “alterity” of Kafka’s transformed narrator, and on the dramatic realization of the way in which Gregor’s changed voice and appearance gradually put him beyond the reach of the sympathies of his family. Levinas’s conception bears strong links to the work of his father, Emmanuel Levinas, and his effort to place ethical experience at the centre of philosophy. For Levinas senior, our ability to respond to what he called the “face of the other” lies at the root of distinctively human consciousness and of the individuation of the self. Taking this as a cue to interpret Kafka, the opera finds in its “metamorphosis” a moral rather than a physical or psychological transformation.

Michaël Levinas takes his central task to be the representation of Gregor’s alienated voice. The part is scored for counter-tenor, but requires the use of both chest and head voice to present the widest possible vocal range. In addition, electro-acoustic processing splits the line to create a kind of partial polyphony, in as many as ten distinct parts. During the second act, the singer is asked at times to sing through a metal spiral, held in the palm of the hand, which refracts the timbre further to produce an uncanny buzzing sound, at once pathetic and compelling.

As well as being effective as a means of representing Gregor’s insect-ness, the multivocal aspect of the role mirrors the polyphonic structure of the work as a whole. The opera is conceived as a series of five madrigals, interspersed with episodes reflecting Levinas’s interest in renaissance techniques, which create a sense of fluid musical stasis entirely germane to the subject matter: Gregor’s awareness of time is frequently noted in Kafka’s story, but in a way that reinforces our sense of the irrelevance a ticking of the clock would be to someone who is an insect. More importantly, the madrigal setting, a form predicated on the idea of different characters united in sympathy, is powerfully expressive of the idea of family. Gregor’s gradual movement beyond the reach of this ethical colloquy is enacted seamlessly in both music and drama, and with an economy at which Wagnerians should doff their caps.

The libretto, on which Levinas worked with Emmanuel Moses (whose father, Stéphane, was also a philosopher), is taken from Kafka’s original without alterations, although the order of events is changed. The staging, by Stanislaus Nordey, does for the “face of the other” what the composer does for the voice. Seen first behind a gauze, Gregor stands at the top of a pole, his naked form framed by a giant suspended cockroach, at the centre of a semicircular room decorated with spider-plant designs. The semicircle rises gradually, disclosing other backdrops, intensifying and echoing the spider designs – a simple device which, in conjunction with Stéphane Daniel’s beautiful lighting, admirably expresses Gregor’s inexorable change, as the black and white lines in the background absorb those of the foreground.

The effects are often moving: when Gregor’s mother reaches out to her estranged child, the arrangement of bodies onstage is uncannily reminiscent of scenes before the cross. The standard of singing, most notably by Fabrice de Falco as Gregor, and Magali Léger as his sister, is high, as is the playing of the Belgian ensemble Ictus. There were just a few times when the electro-acoustic apparatus, controlled by Benoît Meudic of IRCAM, seemed a little ill at ease in the grandly neo-classical setting of Lille’s opera house.

A philosophical issue of comparable significance is the subject of the little-known composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera, The Portrait, which addresses the vexed and contemporary problem of squaring an artist’s voguishness with his actual ability through the lens of the motto, “Sympathy is the only law for mankind”. Unfortunately, as a result of a clumsy adaptation of Gogol’s brilliant novella of the same name by Alexander Medvedev, and an uninspiring and only occasionally diverting score by Weinberg, comparatively little light is shed on the subject. What interest there is comes mainly from David Pountney’s inventive staging – a rare example of a director being let down by an opera – and from the performances by Paul Nillon (as the hero Chartkov) and Peter Savidge, who takes on no fewer than five roles, only four of them male.

Weinberg was a Polish Jew who escaped Nazi-Germany for the questionable refuge of Stalinist Russia. Like his close friend Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg survived both the favour and fury of the regime in the course of an extremely productive career. The Portrait, completed in 1980, should not deter operagoers from attending Weinberg and Medvedev’s earlier masterpiece, The Passenger, which Pountney will bring to English National Opera in 2012

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