Wednesday, July 21 2010
Lincoln Center Presents
Salvatore Sciarrino, La porta della legge
Hilary Griffiths, conductor
Johannes Weigand, director
Jurgen Lier, set and costume design
Sebastian Ahrens, lighting design
Jakob Creutzburg, video design
Ekkehard Abele, Man 1
Gerson Sales, Man 2
Michael Tews, Gatekeeper
"What if, one day, you were to discover that culture, and the most courageous endeavors, are in vain, and that your country has not reached even a semblance of identity? If you felt you are only watching a mocking charade, what of your life then? This is what is happening to us. Others may drift into decadence, but not our country; it cannot because it lost its rendezvous of ages, that with realizing the very ideal of Italy."
-Salvatore Sciarrino, notes on La porta della legge
I should admit that I did not an ounce of preparation before seeing Salvatore Sciarrino's opera La porta della legge as part of the Lincoln Center Festival on Wednesday night. So upon reading the excellent program notes on the train ride home, I was surprised to learn that this seemingly timeless piece of theater, a gaze into the mindless of bureaucracy, had sharp political overtones. Obviously, any opera based on a text of Kafka ("Before the Law," a short parable from 1914 later worked into The Trial) will have some political content, but I had no idea that Sciarrino intended it as blunt protest. In his notes, Sciarrino despairs the loss of Italy's rich cultural heritage, eclipsed in his lifetime by a parade of governmental decadence and bureaucratic negligence. That his operas are performed not at La Scala but in Germany, France, and New York (remarked upon in the notes) speaks to his concerns about his country's abandonment of stimulating, provocative art. I will not attempt to weigh in on the cultural significance of Italy's current situation, but it does underlie Sciarrino's intent with La porta della legge.
The fact that I didn't pick up on the political content, though, does show how much this opera has to offer--musically, dramatically, and theatrically. In seventy-five minutes, Sciarrino created a virtuosic depiction of Kafka's existential dread, aided by director Johannes Weigand's and set/costumer designer Jurgen Lier's stark imagery. Sciarrino replicates the bureaucratic horrors of Kafka's story with three characters and two and a half scenes. One dialogue plays out, twice through and then half-repeated: a man pleads with a gatekeeper to gain entry to the law (an abstract concept, never explained), and after years of waiting and bribing, finally dies of old age. Because this thirty-minute scene is performed almost identically twice--first through with baritone Ekkehard Abele, then again with countertenor Gerson Sales, and both times with gatekeeper Michael Tews--the essence of the mindnumbing story is actually conveyed through the theater. The audience feels the weight, and wait, of this stifling, slowly mesmerizing boredom.
The inward quality of the opera, with the three (or two? it is never made clear if Man 1 and Man 2, who wish to gain admittance, are separate people or different manifestations of the same psyche) characters speaking in riddles to each other and the audience, evokes the psychological dramas of early Expressionism, like Schoenberg's Erwartung and Berg's Wozzeck. But the sound world is entirely different, a hushed landscape of breathy murmurs. The first scene is dominated by the background hum of a thunder sheet called a lastro, creating a wash of sound; a cello slowly traces glissandi in quasi-lamento fashion, and a flute interjects. Muted brass occasionally flare up, and two grand pianos plink away at pianissimo dynamics. Sometimes, the instruments align with the quasi-spoken, quasi-sung vocals, but often they meander on their own. The effect feels almost electronic, the sum of instrumental timbres creating an un-developing plateau of sound.
We begin with a series of slow gestures, as Man 1 attempts to draw the uninterested gatekeeper's attention. Each small movement, whether a raised hand or crossed leg, feels deliberate, full of rhetorical significance absent from most modern opera stagings. Tension gradually builds as the man debates whether to enter and the gatekeeper procrastinates him; the characters seem to talk at each other rather than to each other, weaving around conflict instead of confronting it directly. Man 1 makes comments divorced from the action: "I am staring at the gate keeper." Sciarrino's vocal writing matches the wavering speech patterns of the characters, divided between inflected spoken word and sudden bursts of operatic singing. The stage is entirely bare except for a set of black curtains, a coatrack, and the gatekeeper's chair, but eventually the curtains slowly give way to reveal a wash of foggy, greenish light. Man 1 and the gatekeeper stare into this Rothko-esque ether, turn away, resume their discussion. Time passes, the man grows old, and before he dies he says the gatekeeper, "Everyone strives after the law, so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?" He replies, "Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I am now going to close it."
In Kafka's story, the text ends with that answer. But, almost directly contradicting the gatekeeper's words, Sciarrino plays out the exact same scene, slightly altering the text and music. The thunder sheet is gone, the green hue beyond the gate is now a muddy blue, a viola mutters the solo cello's passages, and a countertenor asks the same questions of the gatekeeper. By repeating the scene, Sciarrino not only heightens the repetitive nature of the work, but actually goes a step further than Kafka in embodying the terror of bureaucracy. The entrance was assigned not only to Man 1; no individual is special in the eyes of the system, and the gatekeeper lies to fulfill his role of not letting anyone enter. Law is completely closed off to man. Much opera is modeled after Greek tragedy, in which the unstoppable power of fate whisks the characters to their bleak destinies. For Sciarrino, as for Berg in Wozzeck and Lulu, institutions take the place of the mysterious furies and gods: the forces of bureaucracy, arbitrary and soulless, guide men to their doom.
In the final, short scene, Man 1 and 2 quickly cycle through their array of emotions, a summary of their lives at the gate. Creepy video projections of a mass of red doors suggest that they were just two of the many men who requested entry, and a web of pizzicati strings sounds like the ticking of a doomsday clock. Suddenly, the music stops. There is no grand gesture at the end, no explosion of sound or Liebestod, but instead the consummate way to finish off an opera illustrating the absurdity of modern living and the lethality of bureaucracy: an ending without reason.