As mind-blowing, life-changing, and transfiguring as classical music is, there are a few emotions it cannot convey. The customs of the concert hall and opera house do not allow for certain opportunities which other genres of music, and other forms of art, can. One of those is danger.
Iggy Pop cuts himself on stage with glass; Marina Abramović watches someone hold a loaded gun to her head; Nam June Paik instructs the performer to creep into the vagina of a living whale.* It’s an artistic thrill that comes out of the fierce violence in punk rock and performance art of the 1970s, one which I never thought could be matched in something as uniform and urbane as opera—until Saturday night’s double-bill of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Infinite Nero at the Staatsoper.
A few minutes before show time, patrons were let into the theater’s workshop, which had been transformed into a sort of installation. Chairs were scattered around the floor, walls of TVs were set up in the corners, and at the center of the room stood a massive cardboard box. Taped to the outer walls of the box were various German newspaper clipping and diary excerpts. There were a few peepholes available, immediately creating a sense of Lost-like mystery: what’s in the box?
On multiple TVs, an actress read off descriptions of various roles she had played, gradually getting angrier. Finally seething with rage, she exploded, and Davies’ music started: mad-cap, almost cartoonish, with hooty clarinet and galloping string cross-rhythms, but also visceral. A small ensemble, sharply conducted by Arno Waschk, played from a raised area, obscured by a curtain. It was hyper-theatrical, with invisible mezzo-soprano Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir wildly embracing her demented vocals, TVs playing video of the singer juxtaposed with random footage, and that puzzling box. Davies’ 1974 theater piece is an Anglo Erwartung, a monologue tracing the madness of an Australian bride who, left at the altar, wears her wedding dress until her death thirty years later. In his staging, Michael von zur Mühlen updates the setting to the present, turning the bride into a media-obsessed, deranged stalker. Though he sacrificed some of the text to make the concept work, it made for a remarkably appropriate adaptation.
The dramatic heart lies in the middle of the work, in which an accumulation of musical effects creates a dreadful paralysis. The piano see-saws between two chords, metronomes tick and tock, creepy bells sound, and the mezzo screeches “Here comes the bride!” in a guttural roar. As we watched her video-likeness pick up a razor, there was an immediate sense of danger, unlike anything I have ever experienced in a work of theater. The room became the embodiment of her madness: the audience trapped, victim to a chamber of horrors.
In the final section, stagehands came to the center of the room and removed the walls of the mystery box. Inside, of course, was Sturludóttir, still singing, with smeared red lipstick and a blonde wig, sitting in the dingy studio apartment we had been watching in the video. In a moment of absolute disgust (and maybe the only misstep of the production), she yanked a blackened baby doll out of her loins, put it into a shopping bag, and threw it away. Picking up an electric screwdriver, she held it near her head, pondered death, and then walked into the audience.
A brief pause barely gave barely enough time to process what we had just seen. In the few minutes before Infinito Nero, I watched a second young mezzo-soprano be duct-taped to a wooden panel, splayed out in the image of Christ on the cross. That panel was then suspended from cables dangling on the far side of the room, and the opera began.
Sciarrino’s music hovers on the edge of imperceptibility, a landscape of tiny pops, slaps, and wheezes—the imitation of distant electronic sounds with acoustic means. He sets to music the ramblings of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, an Italian noblewoman who went insane and became a quasi-prophet. The vocals are infrequent but significant. Mezzo Sarah Maria Sun quickly and intensely mutters words in a kind of sing-song patter, an opaque oracle. Two well-dressed actors emerge from the audience and slowly prepare rituals of worship around the suspended mezzo: painting their bodies blue, stripping off her boots, and then painting her bare feet.
Her worshippers paint on her, “Zu fruh von uns gegangen!!!” (“Gone from us too soon,” the German equivalent of R.I.P). Things turn particularly uncanny when they whip out rubber penises, attempt to fornicate with plants, and crawl around on all fours, dragging paint all over the floor, and then don nun’s hoods. At the end, when the music reaches its most climactic point, though still hardly above a whisper, one of the men climbs a ladder in front of the mezzo and chops off his penis, dropping it to the ground.
In this staging, Sciarrino’s opera becomes a fierce indictment of organized religion: the acquisition of a prophet; the establishment of a brotherhood (first one man paints his face, then the other); the quasi-sexual squabbles between the priests; the final, violent act of celibacy. Clearly, the Catholic Church is put under scrutiny—a vision not necessarily in line with Sciarrino’s original intent, but one with which the Italian liberal might agree.
Both mezzo-sopranos sang with incredible skill, attention to detail, and range. The music, though, felt like only one aspect of a consummate theatrical work. It was one of the very, very rare events I have attended where I felt I was witnessing significant, an evening part of a larger cultural history. The dissolution of boundaries between audience and performer, common to spoken theater of the last century, heightened the experience beyond any ordinary opera staging. At the heart of this dissolution was the shock of urgency: a palpable sense that the performance witnessed was one which could only happen once, because it was too dangerous to happen again.
(all photos copyright Thomas Bartilla)
*OK, pretty sure that last one has never been performed.