Salvatore Sciarrino - Luci Mei Traditrici
Marco Angius, Christian Pade, Nina Tarandek, Christian Miedl, Roland Schneifer, Simon Bode
EuroArts - DVD
It's evident to anyone who has heard his work that contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino's operas, like his orchestral chamber works, don't use instruments in any conventional fashion. The instruments are mostly familiar ones used in classical music, but they are pushed to make sounds that they weren't necessarily made for. Wind instruments whine and explode in whooshes of puffed air, strings are plucked, scraped, hammered and stretched. The instruments seem to be attempting to come alive of their own accord with a gentle physicality that seems to struggle with a sinister silence that threatens to envelop and overwhelm us. That's as good a description for the function of music as any, even if Sciarrino's music doesn't sound like music as you know it.
The same can be said for the extraordinary way Sciarrino uses the voice in his operas. If the musical expression is doing battle with the silence, the voice in his work is a soul at war with emotions. It sounds like a sensitive soul, hesitant, fearful, stuttering out rapid phrases, flowing and swirling the words around the expression of another person. Sometimes voices blend together in common accord, at other times, they stop/start and become trapped in a repetitive cycle that struggles to get its message across. All the time, the voice is attuned to those sounds created by the musical instruments, all of it struggling to keep the greater void of the looming silence at bay.
That works powerfully for a certain kind of work that has a bit of a sinister edge to it, where weak mortals struggle against greater forces, most notably in Sciarrino's Macbeth, but it can even be employed successfully in a work like Aspern (an adaptation of Henry James' 'Aspern Papers'). That's also the dominant mood in the chamber opera Luci Mei Traditrici, a work based on a 17th century text that describes the troubadour Gesualdo's jealous murder of his wife and her lover. The music and vocal delivery on their own make a tremendous impression, but just how effective Sciarrino's opera writing is can only really be felt when it is staged. This performance recorded at the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte di Montepulciano in Tuscany in 2010 is a rare opportunity to see Sciarrino's strengths as a musical dramatist.
Sciarrino's point of reference for the libretto of Luci Mei Traditrici is 'Il tradimento per l'onore' written in 1664 by Giacinto Andrea Cicogni. In English the opera's title translates roughly as 'My Betraying Eyes' but the work is has also been performed in English (by the WNO) under the title of 'The Killing Flower'. Musically, Sciarrino finds another ancient reference for the work in an elegy written in 1608 by Claude Le Jeune. The two references form a kind of dialogue that Sciarrino fleshes out with sounds, noises and flurries of melodies that express the lyrical violence of the subject. "Fleshing out" makes the overall soundscape sound rather fuller than it actually is. In reality, the arrangement is very spare, every note audible and perfectly measured to create an impressionistic image or emphasise an expressionistic gesture.
Reflecting the music and the drama, Alexander Lintl's stage design is similarly spare but movements can be somewhat more elaborate. The first scene between the Duke and the Duchess Malspina, for example, becomes a ritualistic kind of dance, the holding of fans suggesting a Flamenco or even a tango as the two of them weaving in and around each other in the same way as their fragmented phrases swirl around. The air of danger, the presentiment of violence is alluded to in the thorn of a rose, the point of a knife and, most expressively of all, in the nature of the music and how it underlines and gives meaning to the words. The stage itself is mostly bare but for a few long boxes with wooden slats, the background dark.
So closely aligned is the stage itself and the movements within it at this production in Montepulciano, that Christian Pade's direction of it becomes practically an abstract visual representation of the music itself. On stage and in performance, Luci Mei Traditrici is as intensely intricate a combination of words, music, drama and staging as you could imagine, where every single note counts, where every gesture and movement is precisely calculated. It's everything that opera ought to be in other words, but even more impressive that Sciarrino is able to express it through a very distinctive and personal idiom that owes little to conventional musical expression.
The performance of this highly specialised and difficult language is similarly astonishing, the contemporary musicians of the Ensemble Algoritmo conducted with precision of detail by Marco Angius. Like the production team, most of the singers seem to be Frankfurt Opera regulars, with soprano Nina Tarandek and baritone Christian Miedl extraordinarily good as the Duke and Duchess, their spoken voice repetitive rhythms interweaving and clashing in a way that defines the relationship between them. If the music and noises behind them can be unsettling, the singing voices are hypnotically lyrical and Roland Schneider's countertenor soars as the 'guest' who comes between them. Simon Bode sings the role of the servant, who has a small but vital role in the drama.
The DVD recording isn't quite of the High Defintion standard that you would find in most large-budget recordings of opera on Blu-ray, but it effectively captures the mood and setting of the performance. The image is strongly contrasted and in NTSC format, it lacks fine detail, but the filming of the performance is superb. The audio track - PCM Stereo only - is outstanding. The DVD includes a half-hour feature on the production, with Salvatore Sciarrino himself giving a walk-though of the work, explaining its structure and use of sounds. The very specific intentions of how it should be performed and the attention to detail can be seen in the rehearsals for the performance. The DVD is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French and Japanese.