That grim and giddy slice of existentialism called Samuel Beckett Land doesn’t exactly scream out to be musically adapted, but the world of opera, where tragedy and comedy coexist, is exactly where at least one of his plays fits in.
“Fin de Partie,” the opera of Beckett’s masterly “Endgame,” makes its French premiere on April 28 at the Palais Garnier in Paris. It is a sort of homecoming for this adaptation of the four-person, one-act play that he wrote in France, where he lived much of his adult life, after leaving his native Ireland.
“Fin de Partie” reveals how Beckett’s play may be ideally suited to operatic interpretation and can now be appreciated anew since his original French words will now be sung, bringing the opera full circle four years after its 2018 premiere to a rapturous reception at La Scala in Milan.
The esteemed Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag, known mostly for extremely short works, sometimes only minutes or seconds long, wrote the opera — his first — in his late 80s. He also wrote the French libretto, which will now be sung for the first time in France.
The same libretto was used at La Scala and in subsequent productions in Amsterdam and in Valencia, Spain. La Scala’s general director at the time, Alexander Pereira, persevered for a decade to bring the work to the stage, saying Mr. Kurtag is “probably the most important composer in the world at this moment.”
It’s been a thrilling journey for those involved — and for those watching from the sidelines — to bring the piece to France four years later.
“Beckett did not want this play set to music because he felt they were music as they were, and to add music would affect the impact, but Kurtag has a very special status in the musical world,” said the French-Lebanese director Pierre Audi. , who is helming this production, which runs through May 19, as he has the previous three. “He has a very singular 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. While it was not as successful as “Waiting for Godot” (also written in French, its premiere was several years earlier in Paris), it is considered among his finest works.
“Endgame” tells the story of Hamm, a blind and belligerent man who uses a wheelchair; his befuddled companion to him, Clov; and Hamm’s elderly parents, who live in trash cans (and are therefore about as happy as you’d imagine them to be). In a stark and empty room, they await some sort of finality, quarreling and reminiscing in 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.
The French composer Pierre Boulez, who died in 2016, had for years expressed interest in adapting “Waiting for Godot” as an opera. That never came to fruition, but Mr. Krutag’s proposal to adapt “Fin de Partie” apparently made sense.
“Edward Beckett, Samuel Beckett’s nephew, has a very astute sense of what his uncle would and would not have wanted,” said Jean-Michel Rabaté, an author, professor and Beckett authority. “Through music, this play takes on a new relevance, because what Kurtag has done through composing is interpret the play.”
But interpreting Beckett is akin to interpreting, say, Eugène Ionesco or Harold Pinter. Absurdist theater is so tied to its language and a nuanced humor that it’s not an obvious, or simple, choice to interpret. Tone is key, Mr. Audi said.
“Kurtag is faithful to Beckett and has done something that you can argue goes in a sense the way Beckett wanted his plays to be performed,” he explained. “A musical version is by definition an interpretation. You are making interpretive decisions.”
Beckett was no stranger to interpretation himself. He translated French poetry into English, and wrote many of his early poems by him in French, long before he began writing plays.
“What is interesting is that I have decided to write in French, first in poetry,” Mr. Rabaté said. “French is much simpler and lyrical. He translated a lot 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 was quoted as saying, “I preferred France in war to Ireland in peace.”
He joined the French Resistance, and even though he was fluent in French, he had an Irish accent, which made him vulnerable to being discovered. After almost being caught by the Gestapo in Paris, he lived in rural southern France in hiding for many years until the war ended.
“His French was oral French learned in the countryside when he was hiding from the Nazis,” Mr. Rabaté said. “’Fin de Partie’ has a few untranslatable moments in French, because the jokes are funnier in French and the French text is much more bawdy.”
This toggling between the languages proved interesting when his plays, usually written in French, became sensations on the English-speaking stage, despite not only some humor lost in translation but also the severe censorship laws in England in the 1950s (cue the bodily functions and anatomical references of “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 pointed out, especially since Mr. Kurtag saw the original Paris production of “Fin de Partie” in the early 1960s and was awestruck.
“You need a very special kind of a composer to capture the essence of Beckett, but I don’t see many composers who have that kind of passion for Beckett,” Mr. Audi said. “You need to be obsessed with Beckett. Mr. Kurtag has had that for 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 that were planned in Hungary were canceled because of the pandemic. But, Mr. Audi said, Mr. Kurtag has seen a video recording of the original production and attended a concert version, which included the original cast, in Budapest in 2018.
For Mr. Audi, it’s a career high to see an original piece of work be so seamlessly adapted.
“My role as a director is to arbitrate between the composer’s vision and the writer’s vision,” Mr. Audi said. “In the end what he has composed is the essence of the play. For me the opera is complete.”