A cosy museum of modern art

Sicily. The silence of holiday afternoon, the landscape dying away and the unique Mediterranean light. Salvatore Sciarrino compares its tone to ivory. He prefers winter, when the sun has already blunted its sharp, penetrating rays. In 1969 he left his native Palermo for the north, for Rome and Milan. Then he settled down in a small Umbrian Cita di Castello where he lives and creates till now. He found in the city the peace and seclusion of insular life and the place of historical, culturally attractive past. And the captivating beauty of nature.
Two worlds: the breath of Mediterranean art and culture, as well as beautiful nature create the framework for Sciarrino’s music. Historical erudition, great knowledge of painting and literature make the space of artistic inspiration. Sciarrino says that: „I love both modern and old art. I have always imagined a museum as a cosy room or the other way round, as an apartment full of beautiful objects, like in a museum.”

Sciarrino’s art of composition resembles such a museum where old techniques and genres, and even fragments of works of other artists, find their place. As a conservator of musical antiques, Sciarrino rewrites scores of e.g. Alessandro Scarlatti, Carlo Gesualdo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the songs of Cole Porter or George Gershwin. Being an Italian, he cultivates the opera, while challenging the tradition of vocal music. Reinterpretation of historical musical techniques, like the Renaissance sound painting or the theory of affects, guides the music of Sciarrino towards nature, understood not only through the prism of manneristic aesthetics. Repetition, variation (following the example of natural processes), as well as psychoacoustics and sound ecology are key terms here.
Sciarrino’s music is an attempt to sensitize the listener to the sounds of the surroundings, to those sounds that are most subtle and most quiet. Sciarrino is therefore an heir of both the Renaissance masters and Italian futurists. He continues the project initiated at the turn of the 20th century aiming at extending the borders of musicality by opening the composition to new acoustic phenomena, through developing in his scores rich and varied articulation, characteristic harmonics, delicate tremolo and diversity of murmurs, taps and knocks, and – a very important element – the breath of the performer.
Sciarrino states: „I do not write music. I write psychological experience. My music belongs to the area of psychoacoustics. What is most important are vibrations transmitted by sound.” The composer seems to teach the listener the precise and concentrated reception, offering therapy through silence instead. That kind of experience has the might of renewing perception. Each element of the composition, even the smallest one, acquires its meaning.

In Palermo, Sciarrino attended private music lessons, he had never acquired any formal education. In Rome he met Franco Evangelisti, the most German of all Italian composers. Their meeting aroused Sciarrino’s fascination for Bach, Beethoven and Schönberg. To be precise, he feels as at home in German culture as in the Italian one. In one of the latest interviews he admitted that the librettos to his new operas would be written in German! What is his destiny? By coincidence, Sciarrino’s music is most popular in Germany…

In April 2009, Salvatore Sciarrino’s thirteenth opera, La porta della legge, based on the motif of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, had its premiere in Theater Wuppertal. Next year will see the premiere of another of his operas, this time scheduled for Mannheim. Musical theatre is one of the most interesting areas of the composer’s work, if not the most important one. Since his early youth, Sciarrino used to spend plenty of time in the theatre. At the age of 18, he started working as a lighting director. In 1972 he made his debut with his opera Amor e Psyche on the stage of Piccola la Scala in Milan. At 30, he was appointed artistic director of Teatro Comunale di Bologna. During successive years he created many theatrical and musical works, such as e.g. Aspern (1978), Cailles en sarcophage (1980), Vanitas (1981), Lohengrin (1981-84), Perseo e Andromeda (1990), Luci mie traditrici (1998), Infinito nero (1998), Mackbeth (2002), Da gelo a gelo (2006) and Super flumina (2006-2008).
His interests in ancient stories and literary motifs make Sciarrino a truly classical artist. But the stories revived by him are devoid of pathos, and sometimes taken off. They are full of humour, absurd and irony. The world presented in them is often the space of hallucination. This is why Sciarrino has decided to use the stories of Lohengrin and Perseus and Andromeda by Jules Laforgue. In Sciarrino’s work, the German myth about Lohengrin, associated with Wagner’s monumental opera, takes the form of an invisible action (azione invisible) shown as a tense conversation held in bed between the protagonist and his lover Elsa. In the end, it turns out to be just a monologue of a patient of the psychiatric hospital who confuses the swan with the pillow…
The parody of narration loaded with cultural references is in fact an attempt to turn that narration into existential experience. What can opera look like after Beckett? That aspect relates Lohengrin to Mackbeth and Luci mie traditrici to La porta della Legge. Sciarrino shows how subtle the border between reality and dream, madness and reason can be. Just like between silence and sound.

In Sciarrino’s operas voice is the carrier of truth, is given the leading role. It is differentiated from the sequence of music and subjected to specific processes. Sciarrino’s vocal aesthetics has nothing in common with the Italian bel canto or stile recitativo techniques. It is based on a totally different emission. Unlike many opera composers, demonstrating power and strength of human voice, he makes it whisper, whine, sigh, melodeclaim.
He uses two kinds of articulation: fast and syllabic singing, with the simultaneous slow glissando on a given sound, that makes an impression of an untempered scale; as well as lyrical singing in which intonation becomes blurred. As Sciarrino puts it: „In musical theatre there has always been a problem of trying to be lyrical. Everything sounded old and rhetorical. It was very important to me to find the solution to this problem. It is not the question of creating something that has never been heard before, but to hear something again, in a new way. We have to regenerate our hearing. To hear old things as if they were new.”
For Sciarrino singing is the essence of text – it is words and music in one. Therefore, since 1981 the librettos to his operas have been written by himself. Sometimes he marks some gestures in the score. While composing thoughts about a given stage situation, he sees ready images. All of this serves both styling and renewing the perception: „I am a bit surprised that tradition is usually separated from modernity. Something that is obvious to me does not seem obvious to others. I really want to reform the theatre. All human stories are old. We have to fill them with new meaning. While composing, I am well aware of that problem.”

Luci mie traditrici – the look that betrays

Next to Mackbeth, Lohengrin, Perseus and Andromeda, the opera Luci mie traditrici – the work with the greatest staging history – tells another „old” story. Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, a 16th-century composer of madrigals and murderer of his own wife and her lover, is a historical prototype of the protagonist.
The bloody life of „the Prince of musicians” has soon become a legend serving as an inspiration for many literary, film and operatic works. Apart from Sciarrino, Carlo Gesualdo stirred the imagination of e.g. Werner Herzog, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and Alfred Schnittke.
It is hard to tell now how much truth there is in the described details of the murder. Were music and hunting Gesualdo’s only love? Was he neglecting his wife, Maria d’Avalos? The chroniclers cited by Herling-Grudziński stated that Gesualdo spent too much time on composing in his Neapolitan palace near San Domenico Maggiore. He treated Maria as a „tool of rare whims and sexual distractions”. For long hours the woman had been awaiting her husband in their bedchamber, weeping bitter tears and listening to the sounds coming from the studio…
Herling-Grudziński writes that: „Maria d’Avalos was said to be the most beautiful woman in Naples and Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, the most beautiful man, the «archangel». Their affair has soon turned into passion with no restraints. Whenever the duke-madrigalist went hunting, the duke «archangel» (who was married) would spend the nights in Maria’s bedroom. They, and Maria in particular, seemed not to notice the danger they were in. Their love affair continued for a long time, until the Duke kept himself busy with his madrigals and had his eyes shut. He opened them in 1590.”

Today Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa is a character in the history of Italian music and in crime chronicles. He is the composer of original madrigals, conducting harmonic experiments, and alchemist experimenting on human bodies. Who is the „Prince of musicians” in Luci mie traditrici?
The starting point for the composer was the 1664 drama by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, based on the murder story, to which Sciarrino wrote his libretto. He rejected the historical context and gave up the realities of the epoch, focusing on pure drama. Luci mie traditrici is not really an adaptation, although the composer wanted the spectator to identify with the characters governed by irrevocable fate, as in an ancient Greek tragedy. Because the story has some traces of a Greek tragedy held in-between the desire of the heart and the letter of the law. Was Carlo Gesualdo acting out of his free choice, or rather under the pressure from his milieu? The narrator of the short story by Herling-Grudziński, entitled The Funeral Madrigal, is trying to answer all these questions. The locals in a quasi documentary by Herzog accompany him, emphasizing the fact that the Duke was tortured by guilt, that he himself cut down the wood surrounding the castle, and that he died of wounds, as he had himself beaten daily by his servants…

The character of the Servant appears in Sciarrino’s opera. Being in love with the Duchess, he decides to „enlighten” his master. The vision is idealistic, if we take other circumstances into account. Why did Carlo Gesualdo attack the corpse of Maria and split it open, „from the crotch to the neck, with a short sword”? Was it his broken heart that made him put the cradle with his baby son out the terrace balustrade, and place the choir in the courtyard to sing the madrigal about the beauty of death, till he dies?
Such questions are endless, but asking them is not the aim of Sciarrino. The truth is getting dimmed with time, and a vague memory is the only thing that remains.
Bearing Luci mie traditrici in mind, the composer prepared his own arrangements of Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals, which seems quite understandable. In the end, he decided to include into the opera an elegy by Claude Le Jeune, a French composer living in the times of the Prince of Venosa, which is less understandable. The composition functions similarly to instrumental intermezzi. Its sounds can be heard already in the prologue to the work, whereas the „voice from behind the scene” asks: „What has happened to the beautiful eye which had once enlightened my soul, / In which Cupid has stuck his sting, his flames and his arrows?”.
Luci mie traditrici is based on two parallel narrations: musical and dramatic. (Sciarrino says: „time has become something else in music and in theatre after Einstein. Two parallel stories – this is modern theatre for me.”) Clear at first, and played in full sound, Le Jeune’s elegy becomes blurred with the successive intermezzi, fades, dissolves in murmurs… This is a story about music that is passing away, about the image of cultural past that is getting blurred. That image is replaced by the sharp, naturalistic picture of nature painted with the musical means that are typical of Sciarrino.
Especially the scenes in the garden make it possible for the composer to develop sound-imitating effects. We can therefore hear the singing birds, the humming bees, the rustle of leaves, the blowing wind, the creaking of a garden swing… These sounds form a nice background for the lovers’ rendezvous full of sighs and faints. The text of the libretto which is sometimes exaggerated, full of sophisticated metaphor, as if Tasso-styled, and sometimes sparing, Beckett-like, is to express emotions rather than convey the sense. It becomes music as in the 16th-century madrigals.

Light in the opera, the third (meta)narration perhaps, is given a separate role. The title Luci mie traditrici – the words spoken by the Duchess to her lover – is based on a play on meanings of light and looks, difficult to translate into another language (therefore for the purpose of staging the opera in Germany Sciarrino changed its title to Die tödliche Blume – Mortal Flowers…). The action of the opera is held in three places at different hours of the day and night. As it develops, the light changes its tone, to give the „last” evidence of truth during the climax, i.e. in a dark bedroom (Il Malaspina: „Let light speak…”). The light becomes both the traitor and the judge. It is not the moral or historical oracle, but rather a beautiful figure based on the play on the imagination of the artist who entwines the plot and the form of his work into that figure in a crafty and sophisticated way.
With impressive skill of a mannerist artist, combined with the experience gained while working as a lighting director, great knowledge of painting and a sensitive eye of a Sicilian, Salvatore Sciarrino operates with convention in a very interesting way. In his opera innovation is intertwined with tradition on many levels, as is the truth about historic event with the lie. And everything else: art with nature, refined speech with tense silence, light with shade, love with death, and silence with sound.

źródło: Festiwal Nostalgia, Poznań 2009


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