Gyorgy Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente, opus 24
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Geoff Nuttall (violin)
Judges for some Olympic events – I believe that diving is one of them – take into consideration the degree of difficulty of performing an individual manouver in determining the final score of an entrant. If the same system was applied to performance art, then Dawn Upshaw would deserve close to a perfect ten (or whatever it is, I’m already way out on a limb with this sports metaphor) for her intense performance as the unnamed (Samuel Beckett would have said The Unnamable) soprano in Gyorgy Kurtág’s towering inferno of daily life known as Kafka Fragments. With only violinist Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet providing a violin obbligato, Ms. Upshaw had to traverse some of the most death-defying vocal leaps over a constant seventy minutes of high voltage singing and theater of the absurd acting.
Although there were many other people involved in this production at Zankel Hall, including director Peter Sellars, Ms. Upshaw was out there pretty much on her own to create her personal sound paintings within the void of Kurtág’s bleak and uncompromisingly unbeautiful universe. Even the violin was little help to her, since establishing pitch has little meaning with this type of intervallic pinball, and the instrument serves more or less the role of the sitar drone in a raga, but one that ventures very far from the original musical system.
What was especially clear was Upshaw’s dedication to this music. The part is thankless and much of the atonality was displeasing to the “hip” New York basement crowd. The translations of the 39 songs were posted on a big screen, and when the fragment
“woke, slept, woke, slept, miserable life”
appeared, it was greeted with quite a bit of laughter. I realize that they paid big money for their tickets, but these people really don’t deserve to even experience such an excellent level of musicianship.
Some interesting touches included Mr. Nuttall’s scordatura turn in the Scene on a Tram and Ms. Upshaw’s puppet show wherein the two ardent lovers were a blue and a yellow bottle of dishwashing detergent. What was much less appropriate were images of tsunami victims flashing in the background. Obviously, these photos are very new and must have been added by Mr. Sellars’ team at the last minute. A pity, since they fundamentally detracted from the idea of the small, personal tragedy of Ms. Upshaw folding her laundry.
Frederick L. Kirshnit