by Marilena Laterza
To appreciate the vital role that opera plays in today’s music, we might well compare it to copper. Just like copper among the metals, opera is in fact the musical genre that has remained in use the longest; moreover, it possesses flexibility, malleability, a high level of conductivity, good resistance to corrosion, capacity to form alloys, variable coloring depending on whether it is pure or blended with other elements, and even a series of different synonyms to define it. The only property that opera and copper do not share is ease of workability, a characteristic which in the former is practically absent, given that its twofold character – both profoundly rooted in history and at the same time, thanks to its ante litteram hyper-textual nature, surprisingly up with the times – demands of any composer that aspires to measure himself/herself against it a marriage of awareness, intuition and craftsmanship that constitutes a constant challenge.
In offering a brief account of the most recent achievements in the field of opera, we could start with Marco Stroppa. Although many of his works contain in their title an extra-musical reference and are characterized internally by a marked sonorous dramaturgy, Stroppa has always avoided any music theatre project made up of bodies singing and acting within a scene. That is, until he came upon a fairy tale in verse by Arrigo Boito set in an imaginary and timeless universe with rich dramaturgical potential; appropriately adapted, this gave rise to the creation of his first opera, produced in 2012 at the Opéra Comique. A ‘musical legend’ for four singers, four actors, eleven instrumentalists, voice, invisible sounds, spaciality and acoustic totem, Re Orso is an anti-fairy tale: the king is a monster, the heroine loses her head and the final triumph is reserved for a worm. In short, it is a fierce criticism of the sinister workings of power, the dramaturgical evolution of which is well-suited to the compositional processes favored by Stroppa, who, in place of the use of acoustic instruments in the licentious banquet scene in the first act, substitutes the almostexclusive intervention of electronics in the second, thereby representing the deformation of the multiple spaces and times that live together on the stage.
Of an altogether different character is the work of Giorgio Battistelli. Brought up within a theatrical environment, with a childhood spent in the front row of his grandmother’s provincial theatre «watching people tell stories and produce pure variety entertainment», Battistelli is a well-travelled opera composer. His career began with the sounds of everyday work transformed into music (Experimentum mundi, 1981) and went on with monodramas, scenic concerts, melologues and other forms of music theatre including literary, theatrical and cinematographic references – from Shakespeare to Fellini – all invested with a vivid sonorous dramaturgy and its artifices. In Sconcerto, ‘music theatre’ (2010), Battistelli brings on stage an orchestra and its conductor; the conductor, alas, is incapable of conducting the orchestra because he is absorbed in trying to give order to his own confused ideas. The speech, difficult and in Sprechstimme form, preserves and exalts the rhythmic-musical components inherent to it, at times sustained by the music, at times contradicted, if not denied, in such a way that in the end only sounds manage to express what a verbal discourse, now in crisis, is no longer able to disclose.
As he had already done in Big Bang Circus, Il Canto della pelle and Giudizio universale, in Il killer di parole – the final panel in a tetralogy composed between 1996 and 2010 – Claudio Ambrosini tells a complex, problematic story, the solution of which, though, is left to the audience to reflect on after the curtain has fallen. A ‘ludodrama’ (drama game) in two acts on a subject by Daniel Pennac and the composer himself, Il killer di parole, produced at the Fenice in Venice, tells of a poet, a hero destined to defeat, at grips with the deletion of terms from the vocabulary and the extinction of linguistic specificities in favor of a ‘definitive’ language. The multiple levels of the literary text – which oscillate between complete words and preverbal lumps of vowels and consonants – are reflected in the musical choices Ambrosini makes: he resorts to both the vocal repertory of the avant-garde and to a bel canto approach, supported by the predominating tonal qualities of the instruments, which delineate the evolution of characters and situations by way of distinctive sonorities in a play of reflections between text and music.
Two Heads and a Girl, Isidora Žebeljan’s most recent opera (2012), testifies to a persistent predilection on the part of the Serbian composer for a fable-like, symbolic and imaginative music theatre already demonstrated in her international debut with Zora D. (2003) and subsequently confirmed with Eine Marathon Familie (2008) and Simon der Erwählte (2009). Inspired by an Indian myth about an exchange of heads and reinterpreted by the composer in the light of her own perception of the events, a tight dramaturgical narrative unfolds. Underpinned by a powerful spiritual force, the narrative maintains a point of contact with the present while the music itself is an active player in the events, making available folk music traditions of Balkan origins, luxuriant orchestration, exuberant melodic invention and enthralling rhythmic sequences – all peculiarities of Žebeljan – provoking in the spectator an incandescent psychological and emotive impact.
The huge music theatre project that Fabio Nieder is currently bringing to completion – starting out from an original text written for him by Claudio Magris – is, by contrast, introspective and other-worldly. The scenes of this dramaturgical and sonorous polyptych (the overall title of which will be Thümmel, ovvero la perdita delle parole) are modeled on the last drawings of the Trieste painter Vito von Thümmel, realized in the mental asylum where he spent the last years of his life. ‘Dreams’, as von Thümmel himself called these visions, transcribed onto paper, of complicated labyrinths, contorted streets, canals and horizontal projections, furnish an ‘optical link’ with the Middle-European orientation of Nieder’s music, a crossroad between Italian, German and Slavic culture. The sobriety of the materials used, the exploration of the individual sounds transfigured and the opalescent expressionism that travels on the boundaries between consciousness and dreams confer a special instrumental voice to every image; as a result the opera gradually assumes the semblance of a house on the point of waking, the windows of which emit a faint light.
Just as original and distinctive is the creative development of Fabio Vacchi, distinguished from the beginning (Girotondo, 1982) by operas that he has never hesitated to define as such. These are operas that mirror the evolution of his poetic and stylistic identity over time and are underpinned by a constant fundamental trait: the impelling need to express an idea and to reawaken those perceptive experiences that allow it to take root in the consciousness of listeners. Following an epic work like Teneke (Teatro alla Scala, 2007), in his most recent opera, Lo stesso mare (2011), Fabio Vacchi takes up the challenge of Amos Oz’s like-named novel (The Same Sea) and – in the context of a structure based on the preordained forms of traditional melodrama – draws from it an experimental score, halfway between poetry and prose, lyricism and recitation, in which his distinctive compositional idiom takes shape around the intimate identities of the characters. The interweaving of psychological events finds spirit and coherence in the music, and the personal collection of these individual stories, each rendered akin to the other by a common desire to bridge a distance, concrete or supernatural, from the object of one’s affection, becomes the bearer – as always in Vacchi’s operas – of a universal message.
Fascinated by the visionary narratives of the Hindu religion, Riccardo Nova in Nineteen Mantras (2012) deepens his exploration of a genre of performance art built around the interaction between music, dance and theatrical gesticulation. In a daring process of musical and cultural synthesis, Nova juxtaposes the most experimental outcomes of sophisticated Western music and the re-elaboration of sonorities of Indian origins, utilizing the instruments of these two musical traditions together with electronics. The contribution of the director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and the dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa present a captivating dramaturgy but without any sung text as traditionally understood. Instead, the gestures of the body and the arborescent joining of rhythms and mixed sonorities generate a cyclic plot that tells of genesis, desires, seductions and archetypal rivalries.
Finally, for Luca Francesconi, opera is not a preordained genre but a potential one: a locus capable of hosting the reciprocal fermentation of different languages, each a generator of its own meanings. What is involved is a poetics that is recognizable in the stylistic syncretism of his first work for music theatre, Ballata (1996-99), but which finds its fullest expression in the multidimensionality of Quartett. An opera in thirteen scenes on a theatrical subject by Heiner Müller drawn from Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses, the work was premiered at La Scala, Milan in 2011. The two protagonists’ enervating game of exchanging and losing identity is rendered musically by way of a double orchestra, which gives voice both to the private impulses of the characters and to a collective and social dimension. This is supported by an electronic elaboration of sonorous spaces and movements, which functions as an amplifier of what is happening on stage. In addition, the virtuosic vocal writing – with recourse to a broad spectrum of styles, techniques, registers, inflections and timbres – and the computer treatment that synthesizes, deforms and multiplies the voices, contribute to producing that powerful sensorial and intellectual impact that makes Quartett a borderland between nature and culture, body and techne, beauty and complexity.
Translation by Nicholas Crotty