The Renaissance princeling Carlo Gesualdo, prized in our time for the daring chromatics of his blazing madrigals, was notorious in his own time for the slaughter of his wife and her lover in flagrante. An almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare's, he lived a life ripe for the blood-drenched Jacobean stage of Shakespeare's successor John Webster.
Salvatore Sciarrino discovered, while working on his seventy-minute chamber opera Luci Mie Traditrici (My Lying Eyes), that Alfred Schnittke was working on a Gesualdo opera, too. So Sciarrino decided that in his opera, any overt reference to Gesualdo would have to go. Fashioned by the composer from a seventeenth-century Italian play, the libretto calls for a cast of four — an aristocratic couple by the name of Malaspina, their Guest, and the Servant who witnesses the adulterous tryst.
The language is as alien in its terse, ceremonious repetitions as a text of Gertrude Stein. From the first, a metaphor of the thorn (spina) on the rose foreshadows the dagger that will strike in the looming ritual of love and death.
Rather than quote Gesualdo, as he had planned, Sciarrino dropped in a seventeenth-century French elegy by Claude Le Jeune, opening the door to a distinctly different sound world. The variations on Le Jeune passages stand out like crumbling pillars in the ruins of a formal garden, surrounded by the light and air — or rather shadows and airlessness — Sciarrino spins from sighs and thumps and chirps and groans.
Mostly, the tense vocal lines skitter, slide and shiver at the edge of muted conversation. The chamber ensemble of strings, winds and percussion operates under comparable restraints, at dynamics verging on the subliminal, often at the very extremes of their registers, evoking birdsong, the rustle of leaves, the beating of the heart. Rather than obey Western formal or harmonic theory as laid down centuries ago and still taught today, Sciarrino creates music by fiat, ex nihilo. It may have no future, but its new-coined present is riveting.
Introduced at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1998, Luci has been seen at Lincoln Center, Salzburg and elsewhere. This production, directed with algebraic clarity by Christian Pade for Oper Frankfurt, in cooperation with the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte di Montepulciano (where it was filmed live in 2010), is Sciarrino's acknowledged favorite. Working with light and vertical slats, designer Alexander Lintl conjures up an abstract space that is part cage, part labyrinth. Contemporary clothes for the Guest and Servant contrast but do not war with the mixed Renaissance and samurai finery for the Malaspinas. Props are minimal — roses, a pair of fans (one red, one black), a sacrificial sword, a dagger. Blood flows sparingly, yet the scenes of carnage strike home.
Acting at arm's length, even eye to eye, the singers convey a sometimes baffled yet mesmerizing complicity. Christian Miedl imbues the skittish, insinuating baritone lines of the jealous husband with febrile self-doubt. Nina Tarandek — her mezzo sound fresh and smooth, her face a sphinx's mask of fathomless ingenue radiance — transports the errant wife beyond guilt and innocence. As the Guest, Roland Schneider, a countertenor, begins in the tessitura of a tenor before levitating to heights of mellifluous ecstasy. In the tiny tenor part of the Servant, Simon Bode makes every note count. So do the instrumentalists of the superb Ensemble Algoritmo, under the exacting direction of Marco Angius.
Nina Tarandek; Christian Miedl, Roland Schneider, Simon Bode; Ensemble Algoritmo, Marco Angius. Production: Christian Pade. EuroArts 2059038, 69 mins. (opera), 33 mins. (bonus), subtitled