Few composers can inject as much significance into thirty seconds of music as Gyorgy Kurtag, and few writers have equalled the aphoristic terseness of Franz Kafka, so Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments represents a marriage made, if not in heaven, certainly in a grimly harmonious version of hell.
Kurtag’s work for soprano and solo violin weaves together scraps from Kafka’s letters and diaries, and the resulting cycle of forty songs - ranging in length from four minutes to twelve seconds – runs the gamut of all the moods in Kafka’s monochrome world. ‘I am always trying to convey something that can’t be conveyed,’ he wrote, ‘to tell something I have in my bones.’ Kurtag views his musical calling with even more detachment, declaring that ‘composition has its own rules: what happens is what the composition wants, not what the composer wants’.
But that’s just the words and music: when your director is a video artist as resourceful and inventive as Netia Jones, and when your soprano has the charisma and versatility of Claire Booth, you get a very heady brew. Last year Jones triumphantly staged two Knussen-Sendak children’s operas which had been thought unstageable, getting live actors to interact with back-projections which she animated in real time.
Her staging of Kafka Fragments harnesses similar techniques in an austere piece of surrealism. Jones believes that although this work has no ‘story’ it does have a structure, and she has realised this with compelling force, presiding with her laptop at one side of the stage while violinist Peter Manning conjures microcosms at the other, with Booth hurling herself around the space between in bursts of mime and dance.
That space may be ‘empty’, but it’s filled with the most intense drama as Jones’s light-show interacts with voice, body, and violin. Sometimes Booth seems to be floating in a sea of flowing calligraphy, sometimes she’s wrapped in delicately rustling foliage, or pinioned by hard shafts of light; she’s by turns comic or tragic, hero or victim, as directed by Kurtag-Kafka whim.
This process may feminise an explicitly masculine inner world – some of the thoughts turn on a boy’s sexual rejection – but its deeper truth is existential. One provocative pensée entitled ‘Offensively Jewish’ runs: ‘In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.’ Manning’s violin sings as expressively as Booth does in this mad whirl of fears and uncertainties, hopes and dreams.