Bloody Whispers, Ripped From The Headlines Of 1590

Katharina Kammerloher (La Malaspina) and Lena Haselmann (L'Ospite) in Sciarroni's 'Lucie mi Tradici' in Berlin. (Production photos by Matthias Baus)
Katharina Kammerloher (Countess) and Lena Haselmann (L’Ospite) in Sciarrino’s ‘Luci mie traditrici’ in Berlin. (Production photos by Matthias Baus)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN — The Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera) has cultivated something of a Salvatore Sciarrino tradition under current intendant Jürgen Flimm, so it is no surprise that he should stage the Italian composer’s best known opera, Luci mie traditrici, as the last main stage premiere of the season. The production, which opened on July 10 and continues through the 16th, falls under the auspices of the house’s annual contemporary music festivalInfektion! This year’s edition will continue with works by Morton Feldman, the Helmut Lachenmann protegé Matthias Hermann, and the young Greek composer Irini Amargianaki.

Otto Katzameier (Il Malaspina) und Katharina Kammerloher (La Malaspina).
Kammerloher (Countess) and Otto Katzameier (Count).

Luci mie traditrici, first heard in 1998, falls into a long line of reflections on the life of Carlo Gesualdo, the late 16th-century prince whose advanced harmonic language as a composer may or may not be reconcilable with his sadomasochistic tendencies. In 1590, he murdered his wife, Maria d’Avalos, and her lover within the walls of his palace but escaped prosecution due to his political standing. Everyone from Hindemith to the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie has been inspired by the blood-curdling story.

Sciarrino, who has explored Gesualdo through madrigal arrangements and the 1999 chamber stage work Terribile e spaventosa storia del Principe di Venosa et della bella Maria, distills the tale into an existential take on passion as a force both life-consuming and death-driven. The Count Malaspina (which means “evil thorn”), before murdering the countess for her infidelity, asks for a vow of love in death: “Would you die for me?” he queries. Sciarrino’s chamber orchestra creaks, shivers, and whispers throughout the approximately 70-minute work, as if becoming the palace itself, where ghosts howl in the corridors while the characters’ vocal lines hover beneath mezzo-forte, unable to break through the walls of their tortured souls.

However, the hollow timbres also tend to grow monotonous and mechanical. Sciarrino’s gently screeching strings following the arrival of the guest (L’Ospite, Countess Malaspina’s lover) resembled a subway car whose breaks need greasing. The only respite comes in the form of interludes based on a 1608 melody by the French-Flemish Claude Le Jeune (“Qu’est devenu ce bel oeil”), which disintegrates increasingly with each return until it is reduced to glassy shards.

Katharina Kammerloher (La Malaspina) und Lena Haselmann (L'Ospite).
Kammerloher (Countess) and Haselmann (L’Ospite).

At his best, Sciarrino creates a parallel realm where human emotion is stripped down to elemental vibrations and ghostly whispers. Flimm’s production evokes this quality most effectively with moments of magical realism. In the second act, the Count (bass-baritone Otto Katzameier) appears as a winged angel of death, biting the neck of his wife’s lover in an open doorway which is revealed over time to the whirring of a plate bell (the effect resembles that of a wind machine). The director also touches on the work’s perilous eroticism, presenting the guest (mezzo-soprano Lena Haselmann) with a whip in hand while the Countess (mezzo-soprano Katharina Kammerloher) reads the newspaper.

But the production also adopts a mundane approach that detracts from the score. Sets by Annette Murschetz in the first act feature a desk whence the Count will proceed to throw books on the floor; a table which the Countess sets for tea; and – most regrettably – mini-castle towers (just in case we forget that the story is about Gesualdo). In the final scene, Flimm has the half-dead guest rise from her bed and lunge toward the Count with a knife before falling to the floor. The effect was more comic than tragic, an unfortunate denouement to what would have been a powerful second act.

Ironically, presenting the work on the main stage of the Staatsoper’s current home in the Schiller Theater may have created too much distance from the story. Two seasons ago, Flimm staged Sciarrino’s Macbeth in an unfinished wing of the Staatsoper’s home on the boulevard Unter den Linden, seating the audience around a war zone where Macduff lit a real fireplace at the end of the opera. During the 2011 edition of Infektion!, in a wing that is used for chamber operas, the protagonist of Sciarrino’s Infinito Nero, a 15th-century mystic, was duct-taped to a cross in a staging by Michael von zur Mühlen, the extras crawling around with blue paint and dildos).

Otto Katzameier (Il Malaspina) and Christian Oldenburg (Un Servo).
Otto Katzameier (Count) and Christian Oldenburg (Servant).

Sometimes less is more, especially when dealing with a musical aesthetic as understated as Sciarrino’s. The new Luci mie traditrici production, introduced at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in June, remains more memorable for its committed performances than its dramatic lucidity. Katzameier mastered the messa di voce that makes Sciarrino’s vocal writing so challenging. Kammerloher melded technical acrobatics with expressive intent. Haselmann was a fearlessly seductive presence. As the house servant who divulges the affair to the Count, Christian Oldenburg had less control over Sciarrino’s shadowy dynamics but compensated with sharp acting and dancing skills. The Staatskapelle Berlin (Berlin State Choir) executed the score with smooth precision under David Robert Coleman.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.