This week, onto Lille descended the same group that mounted a performance of Levinas’s operatic version of Camus’ Les Nègres at Lyon in 2004, which was dedicated to the composer’s son Elie-Emmanuel, the namesake of the composer’s father Emmanuel, the late philosopher and author of Totality and Infinity. This time they have turned their very vigorous and interdisciplinary focus onto the Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka, perhaps the greatest fifty pages from the 20th century on man in adversity. Here, as in Lyons, the production is being augmented with a flourish of literary disquisitions, three or four public lectures and a whole garland of events on the Saturday in between called “Happy Day.”
This premiere run consists of fve performances from March 7-15: I made it to the second on March 9th. I came all the way to Lille because Stanislas Nordey was doing the mise en scene, as I have travelled far to see others of his doings – his St-Francois at the Bastille, his Pelleas et Melisande at Covent Garden, his Lohengrin In Stuttgart. He has brought along his usual team (Emmanuel Clolus for the scenography and Raoul Fernandez for the costumes). What I like about Nordey is the way he can take up a literary piece whole, and envelop it in a progressing visualization that is deeply structured by ideas but the ideas stay within what we see and the way we see it and never devolve into icons or a symbolism that points to a meaning beyond itself. His work evinces a pure meaning for the expression mettre en scene.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis is and has to be a first-person narration. Gregor tells us he has wakened from a night of bothered dreams to discover he has turned into a large cockroach. How will he get out of bed and go to work with these short little arms and large body with its shell? The door of his room is locked – how will he reach up to unlock it? His parents knock on the door and scold him he will be late for work. But with “scold” I have broken the rule of the piece: Gregor tells us what he heard his parents say through the door: it is we who would call it scolding, and it is only in a third person narrative that such a moral judgment becomes unquestionable. For Gregor is not just the narrator, he is also Gregor; and Gregor, we learn, will forgive them, and indeed has already forgiven them, a lot longer than we would. The heart of the piece is Gregor’s voice telling what is happening to him and telling how he is coping with it with an astounding absence of resentment. The efforts he expends to cope slacken not at all but the goals he sets become more and more debased and rudimentary because of his condition. Meanwhile the reaction of his family also develops, since they need his income, and when they realize they won’t be having that they still have the problem of being appalled by his appearance, and being ashamed in the face of visitors, especially the visitors they need to rent their other rooms to who only want to abuse Gregor’s sister so that fnally the family would rather he were dead so they could use his room for something else. We come to realize, not too long before Gregor does, that his goals will become simpler and simpler until he has only to try to stay alive, and that he will fail.
The shape of the story is to start with a inconceivable but factual enormity and to follow its course to the death of the I that is both subject to the enormity and telling it; and Nordey has found a way to move us along as smaller things become larger and larger and larger. For the frst half we are outside the room watching the parents call to Gregor through the wall. Gregor is on stage, high on a pedestal (the vertical dimension, and indeed the two dimensional backdrop of the stage as a field in which action can take place regardless of gravity, as in a painting, is one of the territories Nordey expands the action into). A cockroach figure depicted in brown on black with muted and fuzzy anatomical detail is projected behind him, and during the slow forward movement of the calling back and forth from inside and outside the room and the arrival of his boss to fnd out why he hasn’t gotten to the offce, the slow forward movement through his disablement and toward his doom, this cockroach fgure becomes larger and larger. By the time we have to go into his room and see him in his own new world this projection has expanded so much the backdrop is filled with only the head of the cockroach; but the unveiling of his room makes a new horror visible for us. When we get inside we are shown the outside. He has turned into an exoskeletal cockroach and now even his white walls are covered by a maze of hard black lines. Maybe they are crazed paths he has walked on the walls (Levinas has composed a “musique de mille pattes” that sounds like mice running through the rafters), or maybe the segmented anatomy of a cockroach has become the truth of his whole world. He himself wears a fesh colored body stocking with the same harsh black lines to ft in with the harsh, scored, crazed, segmented background.
At the end of the piece the pedestal he has been standing on for an hour lowers (Nordey used elevators in his Lohengrin, too); and for the frst time the others have moved behind him instead of being between him and us. Now it is we who feel exposed to him. He cannot walk well since his leg was broken by an apple thrown at him by his father. He takes two steps toward the audience and we wonder whether he will be joining us. But luckily he cannot walk so well and after two steps he slowly collapses onto the foor and rolls up into a ball like a dead beetle, while his family, at the rear of the stage, walk off in slow procession one by one, and the stage goes dark.
The music of Levinas like that of Saariaho means to be a direct expression of emotion. In place of the usual media such as genre or tonality or even the longer ad hoc developmental structures of Schoenberg, the music comes in waves, and so does the singing. They both seem to be structured by the length of human breath. Of course, therefore, the singing is a kind of expressionistic speaking borne along by the musical waves. There is great expressive power in this, but the plot must already be known: it is the opposite of the Aristotelian notion that plot is the soul of the drama. Plot is here the skeleton and the persons and music add the blood and the fesh and make it recognizable that what is going on is human, all to human. Except in the case of Gregor. Throughout his decline he is never all too human; and in the most hideous and moving moment of the piece, near the end, his voice becomes the buzz of a grasshopper and we fnd ourselves way out of our depth, trying to understand what this buzzing subhuman hero is trying to tell us so we can love and admire him still more.
The singers of such music have a unique task and all of them pulled it off. There is the special difficulty of singing Gregor with the breadth of his expressions and the fact that as a cockroach his voice changes: for this Febrice di Falco was the rara avis that could do it. The musical ensemble kept showing us more and more new things, bright and dour. I hope this piece has legs: a recording is likely.