An opera cries out for human dignity

SALZBURG, Austria – “Intolleranza 1960”, Luigi Nono’s furious musical theater work, is a cry of dignity in the face of oppression, racis...


SALZBURG, Austria – “Intolleranza 1960”, Luigi Nono’s furious musical theater work, is a cry of dignity in the face of oppression, racism against migrants and a ruthless ecological disaster. And that was 60 years ago.

“Unfortunately, things are just as bad as ever,” Nuria Schoenberg Nono, widow of the composer and daughter of the dedicatee of the work, Arnold Schoenberg, recently said with a weary laugh.

Indeed, decades after its premiere – at a time when floods ravaged parts of Europe and the pandemic was seized by xenophobes authoritarian in the world – the piece could just as easily be presented as “Intolleranza 2021”.

Its original title, which belies the timelessness of the work, will remain arrives at the Salzburg Festival here on Sunday. The production, directed by Jan Lauwers and directed by veteran Nono Ingo Metzmacher, is perhaps the most terrifying, brash and cathartic opera of the summer.

Nono – an idealistic Italian composer who lived from 1924 to 1990 and was a mid-century chief musical innovator alongside his Darmstadt school colleagues Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez – has been a fixture in Salzburg for three decades now. This is in large part thanks to the efforts of Metzmacher and Markus Hinterhäuser, the artistic director of the festival; in 1993, they staged Nono’s masterpiece “Prometeo”, which he considered a “listening tragedy”, and other works by him regularly followed.

“I consider Luigi Nono to be one of the most important, meaningful and enriching figures in the history of music,” Hinterhäuser said in an interview in his office, sitting under a portrait of the composer. “The figure of Nono is the artist who does not make ‘art for the sake of art’. It is always linked to our existence, to our life, to our human condition.

“Intolleranza”, Nono’s first theatrical work, was written in response to political and social upheavals and premiered as part of the Venice Biennale in 1961. It contains elements of opera but rebels against form – in part, said Nuria Nono, “because he knew he was writing in the land of Verdi and Puccini.

Instead, ‘azione scenica’ or ‘scenic action’, as Nono called it, has more in common with Bertolt Brecht’s ‘epic theater’. It unfolds – sometimes with a whiplash – like a series of episodes about a migrant seeking work in Italy and finding political protests, torture, concentration camp cruelty and societal nonsense, as well as ‘a saving human connection in the form of a companion and, finally, a deadly flood.

The scenes were inspired by current events, but Hinterhäuser said the sum of their parts transcended the peculiar situation of Italy around 1960.

“We could also talk about ‘Fidelio’,” he said. “There is something prophetic about great works of art, and there is something prophetic that sets this room free. I’m not interested in everyday politics and art; I am interested in politics and art. And although art is not free from political elements, it must have another level of reflection. “

Nono’s score is often, a little unfairly, called shrill. The play calls on a massive orchestra – in Salzburg, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, filling the pit of the Felsenreitschule theater and also flanking its stage with a percussion drum. The cast is no smaller: a full choir, unaccompanied in the first and last scene, and lead singers performing at extreme heights and volumes.

“It’s an opera on a collective,” Hinterhäuser said. “It has to do with the muscles – the chorus, the cast, the 26 dancers that we have in this production – and the rise of the masses.”

To reflect this, he called on Lauwers, who directed Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”. in Salzburg in 2018. In an interview, Lauwers described his work this summer as a continuation of his broader concern over the past decade with theater being almost entirely people-oriented. This is why the ensemble is practically non-existent here, and is for the most part only projections on the imposing stone bottom of the Felsenreitschule, the word “INTOLLERANZA” written on its large stage.

In this space, a cast of nearly 100 singers and dancers is almost always on the move and on stage for the 75 minutes of the work. Tenor Sean Panikkar, who plays the emigrant protagonist, said Lauwers conducted the rehearsals with an improv style, “which allows freedom and play”, before arriving at a more restricted goal.

Lauwers’ approach also involved conversations with the cast about how to comfortably portray, for example, a prolonged torture scene that is nearly impossible to watch and barely less difficult to perform.

“In the score there are 22 minutes where Nono just says, ‘There is torture and screaming,’” Lauwers said. “At one point during rehearsals, some performers said, ‘We can’t do this. It’s too emotionally heavy for me. But we have to make it unbearable. It’s reality.”

Still, some of the cast saw this scene as an opportunity to build on the libretto. “Musa Ngqungwana, one of the soloists, wanted to shout: ‘I can not breathe, ‘”Said Lauwers. “The others were like, ‘Wow, are we going?’ But in the booklet, it says: “I hear the noise of people being tortured. So I said, ‘Yeah, it’s your freedom over there if you mean that, and as a director I’m not going to say you can’t.’

Compared to the improvisational spirit of the directing, Metzmacher was demanding with the thorny rhythms and textures of the score – which underpin, he said, the emotional power of the work. “Music is like thunder,” he added. “What interests me, though, is that Nono also has this hope and this vision of love. I think it’s good that the music shocks, but on the other side, there are those moments. of incredible tenderness, it is very suspended, delicate and “dolcissimo”.

Panikkar described the score as initially almost impossible to understand; when he first looked at it, he counted the number of high Cs, each requiring a different sound, and “thought it was crazy”.

“Rhythmic structure, brutal vocal passages and the physical demands of the staging,” he said, “it’s like a tornado that ravages everything in its path and then dissipates.

The premiere of “Intolleranza” was less a tornado than a battlefield. The far-right “agitators”, such as they were called by the New York Times, disrupted the performance with screams, whistles and stink bombs – and was greeted with equally passionate hoots and screams – until they were removed by the police.

“They were also throwing away small pieces of paper,” recalls Nuria Nono. “I think I still have a few.”

A few years ago, she says, she was showing off the Nono Archives in Venice. When she arrived in front of the models and the recordings of the premiere of “Intolleranza”, one of the visitors said: “I was there! My father ”- a right-wing fascist -“ paid us to make a lot of noise ”.

But the show continued. And it ended, as the Times report noted, with “a triumph.” This is because in “Intolleranza,” said Nuria Nono, “all negative and positive emotions balance out.”

“My husband cared a lot about the people who were dying and being tortured,” she added. “But despite all the ugly things that are happening, there are human relationships and there is hope. In all of his works, there is hope.

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