It wasn't until the frolicking flautist and basset-horn player made their final appearance, towards 11pm on Monday, exchanging their bright green dresses for slinky orange outfits (cut, in several places, to the crotch) and tarty shoes, that I finally got the giggles. But during the three hours of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Friday from Light – the British premiere of the fifth instalment of the composer's grand operatic project – it had often been hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
In the 21st century, Stockhausen retains his ability both to delight and to dismay. In Absentia, his recent collaboration with the Brothers Quay, has a haunting score. On the other hand, you get not only that wretched business of his pronouncements on the events of 11 September, but also the continuation, in Friday, of the mind-boggling theatrical hokum and musical longueurs that have characterised everything I've seen and heard from Light.
It would seem, in fact, that some of the continuous tape music in Friday was taken as the basis for the film (also showing at the Barbican). As the opera – the story of Eve's temptation by Lucifer – immediately made clear, Stockhausen can still produce compelling soundscapes, mixing rich and resonant electronic music with, later, some eerie vocal sounds. Elsewhere, though,including the 12 "sound scenes" that emerge from and recede back into the electronic layer, the vocal contributions (many based on the composer's own voice and that of Kathinka Pasveer, the flautist) can be carpet-chewingly trite. Much of the writing for the three solo voices on stage is bizarrely nondescript, reflecting little of either musical or dramatic character; the text is largely inaudible.
Yet it is the theatrical side of Friday that remained the largest stumbling block. True, what we saw was a "quasi-concert performance", in which the five "real scenes" involving a children's choir were heard only on tape (in performances from the 1996 Leipzig Opera premiere). The other five "real scenes" more clearly outline the plot of Friday. At the Barbican, these were acted out on stage in costume by the soprano Angela Tunstall (Eve), the bass Nicholas Isherwood (Ludon, or Lucifer) and Jürgen Kurth (Caino), with instrumental commentary from the already mentioned gruesome twosome, played by the long-suffering Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens. The quality of all the performances reflected the protagonists' long immersion in their roles; the lighting was beautiful.
Ultimately, however, the main problem is surely that the dramatic elaboration is so banal and unconvincing, and that the music is only very fitfully inspired. All credit to the Barbican for the adventurous conception of its "elektronic" festival – and for making good use of the foyer spaces for Irmin Schmidt and Kumo's impressive sound-installation. But the experience of Light sadly reinforces the longheld view that Stockhausen had done almost all his best work by 1970.Reuse content