The eyes have it

Salvatore Sciarrino
Linbury Studio

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 2013

The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino is one of those rare figures who command universal respect, at least among the relatively small community of those who listen to what one finds oneself increasingly forced to call, through gritted teeth, "contemporary classical" music. Unusually, Sciarrino taught himself to compose, a badge of artistic independence he wears proudly; but in reality a stylistic line of descent can be heard coming through Luigi Nono and his pupil Helmut Lachenmann. Like theirs, his music delights in half-lit sonorities and operates at the margins of positive expression, resulting in a musical experience that sharpens the senses. A quiet but irrepressible delight accompanies the feeling of growing power as a listener.

Sciarrino's music is widely performed both in Europe and further afield, but for some reason none of his fifteen operas has made it to Britain until this year, when the ever enterprising Music Theatre Wales decided to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by mounting a production of Luci mie traditrici, first staged at the 1998 Schwetzingen Festival and performed widely ever since. For its British premiere the libretto has been sensitively translated into English by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with the title given as The Killing Flower in reference to the rose on which the female protagonist pricks herself in the first scene - though it is her husband whom the wound causes to faint.

Literally, the title translates as "my betraying eyes". The change in the English version was Sciarrino's choice because he wanted to retain something of the erotic charge of the original. Nonetheless, it loses the crucial idea that it is the eyes, and the act of seeing, which are responsible for the betrayal. The opera is based on a seventeenth-century play, Il tradimento per l'honore, about a young nobleman who murders his wife and her lover. The setting was chosen by Sciarrino because he had long wanted to write an opera about the similar story of Carlo Gesualdo, but had been put off by the interest in Gesualdo taken by other composers, notably Alfred Schnittke.

The instrumental sections of Sciarrino's score take the form of fragmentary variations on a sixteenth-century song setting by Claude Le Jeune of the words "What happened to the lovely eyes which once brightened my soul with their rays?" But the opera itself unfolds another account of whose eyes are doing the betraying. Through the visual testimony of his servant, it is the Duke's recognition of the flaw in his image of his marriage that does the betraying, and which honour commands must be recompensed. The idea may seem an odd one, but the notion that the Duke's love for his young wife is, in his eyes, a kind of flower whose beauty is destroyed by the discovery of an imperfection matches perfectly the fleeting aesthetic of Sciarrino's style, whose exquisite beauty also seems to vanish if examined too closely. To be themselves, both love and music must remain tantalizingly Just out of focus.

Like many composers, Sciarrino continues to write operas in the belief that he can do something new with the form. Unlike many, however, he succeeds, perhaps largely because he is unafraid to look to the past. The vocal style employed exclusively in Luci is one of murmurs and sighs, and the lines take their quantities and variations in pitch and intensity directly from the words. In this respect, the opera is much closer in spirit to the early experiments in opera in late sixteenth-century Florence. The dramatic and musical momentum generated by Sciarrino, however, is quite unique because of the almost tantric manner in which the music builds up its charge. By the final act, in which the Duke leads his wife to their bed, on which is already lying her murdered lover, the music bristles with an electricity so urgent that one quite shares the Duke's picture of things. The experience is unsettling, to say the least.

The production is a collaboration between Music Theatre Wales's two founding co-artistic directors, the conductor Michael Rafferty and the director Michael McCarthy. Musically, Sciarrino's delicate sonorities survive well in the stuffy atmosphere of the Linbury Studio, and the instrumental sections were particularly well handled. It is hard to fault the singers - Amanda Forbes (Duchess), George Humphreys (Duke), William Towers (Guest) and Michael Bennett (Servant) - all of whom fully embraced the sensuous qualities of the vocal lines without forcing them. One odd feature of the production, however, stylishly and sparsely designed by Simon Banham and beautifully lit by Ace McCarron, is that the singers often appear to be over-acting. The vocal line is so rich and powerful in capturing the minutely variegated emotional spectrum of the drama that only the slightest trace of anger, fear and adoration in facial expression and bodily gesture is called for. But this is a minor quibble over a production which commands praise on every other level and which I hope will lead to a widening interest among British opera companies in Salvatore Sciarrino's work.

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