It's not a stretch to call Quartett, Luca Francesconi's internationally-acclaimed opera that makes its U.S. debut in Charleston this week, a piece of ultimate fan fiction. The story of Merteuil and Valmonte, two vengeful ex-lovers sparring through the cruelty and seduction of each other's family and friends, was born in 1782 in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
The tale's deceitful intrigue — scandalous at the time of its publishing in pre-Revolutionary France — persisted for a century and a half to become a French feature film in 1959. But it was German playwright Heiner Müller's 1981 play, titled Quartet, and a more direct stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton in 1985, that inspired a parade of adaptations since.
In the 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons, John Malkovich (Vicomte de Valmonte) seduces Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman through schemes encouraged and orchestrated by Glenn Close (Marquise de Merteuil). 1999's Cruel Intentions shifts the story to modern-day New York, played out by high school teenagers, popularizing the treacherous sexual tale with a new generation.
It's Francesconi's Quartett, however, that may provide these characters their most significant development in character since their debut, 235 years ago. Valmonte and Merteuil now exist concurrently in 18th-century France and trapped within the confines of a post-World War III concrete bunker. A live orchestra creates intimacy between the audience and the two characters in the bunker, while a pre-recorded second orchestra and video projections depict the world — present, past, and future — that exists (or existed) outside.
Since its debut in Milan in 2011, the opera has been staged throughout Europe. Perhaps most notably, John Fulljames, of the Royal Opera House in London, adapted the piece from its large-scale setting at Milan's Teatro alla Scala to a more intimate production that now makes its first trip across the pond for Spoleto.
"When I first saw Quattro, I was struck by how it's a piece that deals with the very biggest things in the universe — planets and stars and a sense of the inevitability of the end of time, the opposite of the Big Bang — to the smallest and most intimate things like the relationship between two people and the way that we all come from a single cell," explains Fulljames. "I felt that it would benefit from being in an environment where you could see the whites in peoples' eyes, so that you feel trapped in the bunker with these two human beings who are the only people left alive."
Fulljames' adaptation, while more intimate, still allows the "epic sonic canvas to be realized audibly." Over the course of two weeks before the production, Memminger will be outfitted with surround sound speakers and projection screens, including a plastic ceiling suspended over the audience, creating layers of alternative reality within the space and the story that build tension between life inside the bunker and whatever is outside. Valmonte and Merteuil find themselves trapped in a room, facing the reality that the only way out is death.
How they came to be in this confined space — nuclear holocaust, self-imposed exile, spaceship to Mars — Fulljames and Francisconi leave to the viewer to imagine. Inside, they must grapple with the evil pasts that left them trapped here together, leading to the onset of insanity and role-swapping and even gender transformation.
"We all adopt different roles at different points, particularly in our personal relationships with people," says Fulljames. "We are all performative."
Of course, we're not all evil, but Quartett aims to challenge our motivations with one another and our perceptions of ourselves. That, to Fulljames, is what good opera should accomplish.
"It's a total art form: it's story, it's drama, it's music, it's theater, it's movement, it's image. It grabs you and pulls you in, and leaves you feeling, in this piece, a bit disturbed inside. It's utterly compelling because it's extraordinarily raw. It's the sort of piece you sit on the edge of your seat for."
For opera connoisseurs, Fulljames cites the singing in Quartett as particularly of note. "Luca writes lyrically for the voice, and he writes an extraordinary range of color."
Those who recall past adaptations of the Dangerous Liaisons story will find much to recognize and enjoy in Quartett, although the opera's story — both sung and subtitled in English — is straightforward in its 80-minute, one-act telling, so previous familiarity is not a prerequisite to grasp the plot.
Those familiar with the film and its lore may recall that John Malkovich ultimately had a marriage-ending affair with Michelle Pfeiffer while on the set. It's a testament to the method acting, however unintentional, that the characters of Valmonte and Merteuil demand of performers.
"It's painful for them," says Fulljames. "In most operas, even if a singer has a lead role, they're probably singing for 20 or 25 minutes. In Quartett, there are two protagonists, and they own the whole lead between them. It's extraordinarily demanding of them. As a consequence of that, exactly what is happening psychologically in any performance is quite open and quite available to them as performers to own, and therefore each performance really is unique."
Quartett, in its savage cruelty, sexual energy, and dire clash of regret and pride, requires the total commitment of its performers. In Fulljames' intimate production, blurring the lines between stage and gallery, the same might be said of its audience.