The U.S. premiere of 'Quartett' is 80 minutes in hell 

Building up to an awful hate fuck

click to enlarge Lack of melody, horrid characters and unimpressive special effects doom Quartett—but the orchestra is superb.

Stephen Cummiskey/ROH

Lack of melody, horrid characters and unimpressive special effects doom Quartett—but the orchestra is superb.

Art doesn't have to make the world a better place. It's often appropriate to absorb a piece of creative work and walk away feeling uncomfortable or dirty. We don't always need to be entertained or even enjoy something to appreciate it.

But we shouldn't be bored. So the quiet snickers were telling when Quartett's Valmonte bellows, at the end of an overly drawn-out death scene, "I hope that my performance did not bore you. That, in fact, would be unforgiveable."

If I was questioning my take — Am I not cultured enough? Should I think this is good? — my assessment was confirmed as droves of patrons skipped the ovation to hurry to the door. Minutes later at Le Farfalle, the girl seated next to me laughed at my initial report. My bar stool had just been vacated by a visitor from Edinburgh, Scotland, who hadn't ridden out Quartett to the end as I had, opting to skip out early and recover an extra half hour of his life with a stiff drink.

I held out, expecting redemption that never came. The promise of ground-breaking visuals fell flat: There was no screen over the audience depicting the world outside the bunker — only abstract, fuzzy images projected onto tattered sheets of white plastic hanging over the stage. There was very little to differentiate the world outside the bunker from the world inside, or audio/visual effects to immerse the audience in the scene. Rather, it felt like a traditional (and not overly impressive) stage set.

Quartett's graces — and they don't save it — are the orchestra and the actors. The condensed orchestra performs with precision, setting a dramatic tone that astutely conveys the mood of the dreary bunker where the entirety of the action takes place. Likewise, the two actors/singers give dramatically physical, strenuous performances. But they're held back by the complete lack of melody. It's not a soundtrack anyone will cue up at home, and there will be no modern standards that emerge from Quartett.

Most of all, the actors are hindered by the ridiculousness of lines like, "Eternity is a permanent erection," or, prior to a brutal rape-ish scene that can only be described as a hate fuck, "Paradise has three entrances." Just before that, Valmonte portrays a priest receiving fellatio from Marquise while singing, "One shall not spit out the blessing of God."

That might be OK if it was sung in Italian, and we were left to chuckle at what must be an awkward translation in the subtitles. But it's written and sung in English, leaving us to writhe uncomfortably in our seats, wondering how two characters could be so depraved (and how, despite such colorful metaphors, we could still find ourselves bored).

Quartett didn't invent Valmonte and Marquise. They've been around since the 18th century, reappearing in films like Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions. But in Quartett, these characters are hardly nuanced beyond reflections of pure evil. It's a semi-cohesive story about megalomaniacs grappling with their own insignificance, now that they are trapped and vulnerable. That's an interesting premise, even if we don't love them or wish them well. But in the end, we just want to get out of the awful bunker and away from them, as soon as possible, to head out into the night — to a bar, to our car, to anywhere else — and try to forget the suffering.

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