Stockhausen! Not so long ago the composer’s name served as an expletive for conservative music lovers, expressing not so much their dislike as their nervous fear of radically modern music. It is five years since he died, and he has suffered the usual post-mortem slump in attention.
All credit, then, to Birmingham Opera Company and its inspired director, Graham Vick, for giving us the world staged premiere of Mittwoch aus Licht, one of the series of seven operas (one for each day of the week) on which he worked for more than 25 years.
The sequence runs for nearly 30 hours, making Wagner’s Ring look like a snack. Stockhausen was not thinking in terms of conventional opera or the conventional opera house when he devised this cycle.
So a staging in the vast flexible spaces of the Argyle Works is absolutely apt, and works extraordinarily well. Mittwoch (Wednesday) is in six substantial sections which could hardly be more diverse. The wordless prelude, which lasts nearly an hour, is played in total darkness.
We were immersed in electronically produced surround sound, but granted occasional glimpses of simple human activities – a boy with a kite, some dancing, a procession of pregnant women. The second scene, a sung debate in an imagined world parliament, is quite different: unaccompanied human voices, singing mainly in groups but with occasional dramatic solos.
The Ex Cathedra choir sang this superbly, and the music is magnificent. I can think of no reason why this scene should not be performed as a self-contained work. And there’s the rub. Mittwoch contains some superb, sustained music, but lacks coherence. The world parliament scene is followed by two which are wholly instrumental.
The first, which features 11 soloists playing from seats suspended in mid-air, is full of wit and vitality, but the second, in which a string quartet plays in four helicopters, with their music and the hum of the ’copters beamed down to the audience, seemed an extravagant, pointless stunt.
It was executed with perfect efficiency, much to the audience’s appreciation, but the music, so far as it could be heard, was repetitive and mechanical. We need to hear – and see – more Stockhausen. His use of space to complement sound is extraordinary, and was brilliantly realised in Vick’s production. But Mittwoch as a whole isn’t a whole, it’s a hotchpotch.
No one need apologise for playing or performing its best sections separately.