That grim and dizzying bit of existentialism called Samuel Beckett Land isn’t exactly crying out for musical adaptation, but the world of opera, where tragedy and comedy coexist, is exactly where at least one of his plays fits.
Fin de Partie, the opera of Beckett’s masterly Endgame, will have its French premiere on April 28 at the Palais Garnier in Paris. It’s sort of a homecoming for this adaptation of the four-person play in one act that he wrote in France, where he lived for much of his adult life, after leaving his native Ireland.
“Fin de Partie” reveals how Beckett’s play could be ideally suited to operatic interpretation and now be re-appreciated as his original French words will now be sung, propelling the opera to a lavish reception four years after its 2018 premiere. La Scala ends up in Milan.
The esteemed Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag, best known for his extremely short works, sometimes only minutes or seconds long, wrote the opera – his first – in the late 1980s. He also wrote the French libretto, which will now be sung in France for the first time.
The same libretto was used in La Scala and in later productions in Amsterdam and Valencia, Spain. The then general manager of La Scala, Alexander Pereira, has held out for ten years to bring the work to the stage, saying that Mr Kurtag is “probably the most important composer in the world right now”.
It was an exciting journey for those involved – and for those watching from the sidelines – to bring the piece to France four years later.
“Beckett didn’t want this piece set to music because he felt it was music as they were, and adding music would influence the impact, but Kurtag has a very special status in the music world,” said the Franco-Lebanese director. Pierre Audi. , who, like the previous three, will head this production, which will run until May 19. “He has a very own language that is very clearly compatible with Beckett.”
The play premiered in 1957 at the Royal Court Theater in London in Beckett’s original French, which he later translated into English. Although it was not as successful as “Waiting for Godot” (also written in French, it premiered in Paris several years earlier), it is considered one of his best works.
“Endgame” tells the story of Hamm, a blind and combative man who uses a wheelchair; his confused companion, Clov; and Hamm’s elderly parents, who live in trash cans (and are therefore about as happy as you’d imagine). In a stark and empty room, they wait for some sort of finality, arguing and reminiscing the way Beckett characters do: desperate, sad, and remarkably funny.
“Fin de Partie” is the first musical or operatic adaptation of any work by Beckett, who died in 1989, since his estate has long guarded against adaptations.
French composer Pierre Boulez, who passed away in 2016, had for years expressed an interest in adapting “Waiting for Godot” as an opera. That never happened, but Mr Krutag’s proposal to adjust ‘Fin de Partie’ seemed logical.
“Edward Beckett, Samuel Beckett’s cousin, has a very perceptive sense of what his uncle would and wouldn’t have wanted,” said Jean-Michel Rabaté, an author, professor and Beckett authority. “Music gives this piece a new relevance, because what Kurtag has done by composing is interpreting the playing.”
But Beckett interpreting is related to the interpreting of, for example, Eugène Ionesco or Harold Pinter. Absurdist theater is so tied to its language and nuanced humor that it is not an obvious or easy choice to interpret. Tone is the key, said Mr. Audi.
“Kurtag is faithful to Beckett and has done something that you can say is in a sense going the way Beckett wanted his plays to be performed,” he explained. “A musical version is by definition an interpretation. You make interpretive decisions.”
Beckett himself was no stranger to interpretation. He translated French poetry into English and wrote many of his early poems in French long before he started writing plays.
“What’s interesting is that he decided to write in French, first in poetry,” said Mr Rabaté. “French is much simpler and lyrical. He translated many of the French surrealist poets, and in English they were opaque and full of illusion. But in French it was simple and you just heard the voice.”
Beckett’s ties to France and the French language are legendary. He could have fled France when the Nazis invaded in 1940, but, as he said, “I preferred France at war to Ireland at peace.”
He joined the French Resistance and although he spoke French fluently, he had an Irish accent, which left him vulnerable to being discovered. After nearly being caught by the Gestapo in Paris, he lived in hiding in the countryside of southern France for many years until the war ended.
“His French had been learned orally in the countryside when he was hiding from the Nazis,” said Mr Rabaté. “‘Fin de Partie’ has some untranslatable moments in French, as the jokes are funnier in French and the French lyrics are much bolder.”
This switching between the languages proved interesting when his plays, mostly written in French, became a sensation on the Anglophone stage, despite not only losing some humor in translation, but also the strict censorship laws in England in the 1950s (cue the bodily functions and anatomical references from “Godot”).
Over the decades, Beckett’s works became standard repertory, but perhaps it was time for the first opera based on one of his works, Mr. Audi said, especially since Mr. Kurtag’s original Parisian production of “Fin de Partie” was set in the early 60s and was in awe.
“You need a very special kind of composer to capture the essence of Beckett, but I don’t see many composers who have such a passion for Beckett,” said Mr. Audi. “You must be obsessed with Beckett. Mr. Kurtag has had that much of his life.’
Mr Kurtag, now 96 and living in Budapest, was unable to travel to see any of the previous productions and is not expected to go to Paris. Two performances scheduled in Hungary were canceled due to the pandemic. But, said Mr Audi, Mr Kurtag has seen a video recording of the original production and attended a concert version, including the original cast, in Budapest in 2018.
For Mr. Audi, it is a career highlight to see an original piece of work adapted so seamlessly.
“My role as a director is to mediate between the composer’s vision and the writer’s vision,” said Mr. Audi. “In the end, what he composed is the essence of the piece. For me the opera is complete.”