Donnerstag aus Licht review – ambitious Stockhausen staging realigns cosmic order

Royal Festival Hall, London
Symbolism, stagecraft and tap-dancing trombones combine in Le Balcon’s impressive production of “Thursday”, the first in Stockhausen’s epic opera cycle

‘That is the meaning of Donnerstag aus Licht.” The translation came up on the screen four hours into this performance, not long after a tap-dancing trombonist had been vanquished in a duel. What – had we missed something? Hardly. Stockhausen didn’t weave such a wide, dense net of symbolism, with everyday mundanity next to Age-of-Aquarius-style talk of “cosmic co-creators”, only to tell us what it is about.

At least one of Donnerstag’s subjects is clear: Stockhausen himself. His Licht is a vast ego-trip: a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. In 1980, Donnerstag was the first to be completed, and it’s here that the French group Le Balcon has started its survey, an admirably, perhaps hopelessly ambitious project due to continue with Samstag in Paris next month.

Fabulous … Iris Zerdoud on basset horn.
Fabulous … Iris Zerdoud on basset horn. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Act 1 introduces a musically gifted boy called Michael, who is transparently Stockhausen himself, and his parents, Lucifer and Eve; she becomes mentally ill and is hospitalised, like the composer’s own mother. They sing in snatched phrases, or in syllables that play with the letters of their names. But Stockhausen is at his most eloquent when he leaves out the words. Each of the three characters is represented not only by a singer but an instrumentalist and a dancer too, so Michael’s travels around the world in Act 2 are represented by a kind of trumpet concerto, here a tour de force from Henri Deléger, pacing the stage. Basset horn player Iris Zerdoud, appearing first as a fabulously feather-fingered bird, was an equally strong presence.

The music, much of it played off stage or prerecorded, much of it of filigree delicacy, sets up an intriguing disjunction between what we see and what we hear. It was persuasively performed, with Le Balcon’s Maxime Pascal conducting massed forces drawn from the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music and the New London Chamber Choir. Benjamin Lazar’s staging was brilliantly effective. Walking away from the hall as four trumpeters sounded a long Farewell out over the Thames, it was possible for even the previously doubtful to feel that some sort of cosmic order had been realigned.

At Royal Festival Hall, London, 22 May.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Stockhausen: the composer who makes Wagner look anaemic
His ego knew no bounds … but nor did his operas that feature camels, helicopters and giant pencil sharpeners. As his epic Donnerstag aus Licht comes to the UK for the first time in 34 years, we separate the cult from the culture of Karlheinz Stockhausen

Kate Molleson

21, May, 2019 @3:50 PM

Article image
Actress x Stockhausen Sin (x) II review – transcendent AI-driven opera
DJ and producer Actress strays even further from the dancefloor as he takes on Stockhausen’s famously over the top Mittwoch by sampling Westminster debates

John Lewis

15, May, 2019 @11:47 AM

Article image
The last unperformed Stockhausen opera lifts off

The strings play in helicopters, the trumpeter's on a trapeze, and a camel dances around while defecating planets. Alexis Petridis on Birmingham Opera Company's bid to stage a mind-boggling Stockhausen opera

Alexis Petridis

08, Aug, 2012 @6:00 PM

Article image
Siegfried review – Jurowski showcases Wagner with wonder and excitement
Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO make the third part of Wagner’s Ring a thing of wonder, raising the bar with an astonishing performance

Tim Ashley

02, Feb, 2020 @4:07 PM

Article image
The Light in the Piazza review – Fleming shines over feelgood musical
Full of lazy, hazy nostalgia for classic romantic encounters in Italy, this picturesque show is rescued from cliche by Renée Fleming’s soaring star quality

Erica Jeal

19, Jun, 2019 @2:37 PM

Philip Hensher on the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen

He was the king of avant-garde music but came to be seen as an oddity. On the eve of two Stockhausen festivals, Philip Hensher says it's time to return his crown

Philip Hensher

30, Oct, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
Björk on the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen

Björk: When Karlheinz harnessed electricity into sound and showed the rest of us, he sparked off a sun that is still burning and will glow for a long time


30, Oct, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
The flat-pack Stockhausen

One of Karlheinz Stockhausen's most intriguing ideas was for a piece musicians could complete themselves. Christopher Fox took up the composer's self-assembly challenge

Christopher Fox

12, Jul, 2010 @9:00 PM

Article image
Mittwoch aus Licht – review

The staging is wonderfully fluent – and Stockhausen's music stops it becoming just a parade of weird images and pretentious ideas

Andrew Clements

23, Aug, 2012 @12:44 AM

Article image
Susanna review – young artists shine in cluttered Handel staging
Handel’s take on the biblical story of Susanna is well played and well sung in this new production by Isabelle Kettle, though less would have been more

Martin Kettle

08, Mar, 2020 @2:50 PM