Return to the Origins — Chamber Opera in Crisis Times

It is a return to the origins of Opera, because, at the
end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, Opera started
out as a private musical entertainment, to be performed in the large hall of a
Palace for the enjoyment of a limited number of friends and guests. Thus, it
was chamber opera in the most literal sense.

There are several determinants at the roots of the return. Firstly, chamber
opera requires a light budget with few soloists, an instrumental ensemble and
simple sets and costumes; also, the production is generally suitable for
touring and the costs can be shared. Secondly, it attracts a new and younger
audience, partly because it charges lower ticket prices that a regular opera
performance. Thirdly, and perhaps more significantly, chamber opera fits crisis
times. In his Minima Moralia, Theodor A. Adorno considers
Stravinsky’s chamber opera A Soldier’s Tale as one of the
best expressions of World War I: the chamber group battered by shocks whose
dreamlike compulsiveness simultaneously expresses real and symbolic
destruction. This explains also Benjamin Britten’s emphasis on chamber
opera in the years immediately after World War II.

An interesting feature of the return of chamber opera is the tendency to be
addressed to an international audience. This is a new dimension: even
Britten’s chamber operas were thought of primarily for an Anglo-Saxon
public (although one of his masterpieces was premiËred at La Fenice Opera House
in Venice). In the last few weeks, two “international” chamber
operas have had their premiËre in Italy with plans of extensive
European tours: Le Malentendu by Matteo D’Amico and Kafka
by Gyˆrgy Kurt·g . Neither of the two operas is in Italian; the
former is in French, the latter in German. Both have been entrusted to an
international cast.

The two composers are very different in age – D’Amico is in
early 50s, Kurt·g (in his 80s) just received the “Golden Lion” for
his career at the Venice 2009 Biennale of Contemporary Music. D’Amico and
Kurt·g belong to different schools; in D’Amico’s work the listener
feels the flavour and the colour of Henze. and those of Boulez in
Kurt·g’s. Both operas can be performed in a regular theatre of
comparatively small dimensions (an audience of 400-600) but they are much more
effective in an unusual space. For Le Malentendu a small center stage
arena was chosen; for Kafka Fragmente the half destroyed main hall of
a Convent bombed during World War II and never reconstructed.

Le Malentendu was premiered in Macerata. Its text is after
Camus’ play, shortened so that the performance has a total 90
minutes’ duration without intermission. The four singers come from
different European countries: the mother (Elena Zilio) is Italian, the daughter
Martha (Sofia Solovij) Ukrainian, the son Jean (Mark Milhofer) British, his
wife Maria (Davinia RodrÏguez) from Las Palmas. There is also a fifth
character, the servant (Marco Iacomelli) – silent throughout the performance
until his final explosion (a very loud “No!”). The orchestra,
conducted by the French Guillaume Tournaire, is made up of five strings, a
clarinet/bass clarinet, and an accordion.

The plot is simple: after many years, Jean goes back to his family and rents
a room in the small B & B which his mother and his sisters operate. He does
not unveil himself as he wishes to be recognized by his family; he gives his
passport to the servant who keeps the information strictly to himself. As a
result of this malentendu (misunderstanding), he is killed by the two
women, who intend to steal his money. When the servant finally shows them
Jan’s document, they are in despair. In tears, his wife asks God if there
is a meaning to all this. The until-then-silent servant explodes with a loud

Le_Malentendu_Macerata_01.gifA scene from Le Malentendu

Camus wrote Le Malentendu in 1941, when France was under
occupation. The play is pervaded with symbolism, expressionism and
existentialism. It is theater of the absurd, or of the absurdity of
life. It mirrors a deep crisis in Europe. To enhance full understanding of the
text, singing is harsh declamation sliding into melodic intervals, a couple of
arioso and duets. The orchestration is rich; the accordion is the link between
the strings and clarinet/bass clarinet, and conveys anguish and loneliness in
the voyage to nowhere by the protagonists. Singing and acting is of high
quality, and because nearly all the four singers have perfect French diction
– a rarity in opera performances in Italy. The only exception is Sofia
Solovij: she excels dramatically but her French is barely understandable. A
special mention to Elena Zilio, for the difficult role she takes at her not
quite so young age.

Kafka Fragmente was also premiered in a comparatively small town,
Rimini. Kurt·g composed it nearly 20 years ago .Until last year it had only
concert performances, although its author considers it “a street
opera” – viz, a real opera (not a lieder cycle) to be
“staged” in the street, in a tramway, in the midst of the crowd of
a city. It lasts 50 minutes. It is made up of four scenes (without
intermission) and requires only two interpreters: a soprano and a violinist
–both young and attractive. Last year, a staged version toured France and
part of Germany; it was conceived for regular theatres with a proper stage,
stalls and balconies or boxes. It did not really fit Kurt·g’s design of a
“street opera”. This new production places the stage in a high
Plexiglas and wood structure at the centre of the dilapidated hall: it shows
the small apartment of a youngster at the beginning of the twentieth Century.
The public sits on both sides of this unusual stage – perfect for any
comparatively large hall. On the Plexiglas walls, footage of old movies is
projected, to provide the colour of the four scenes. The footage is skilfully
mixed in order not to allow the audience to identify the individual films.

The staging is international. Denis Krief , the mastermind (stage director
and also responsible for costumes and lighting) was born in Tunisia, is a
resident of Rome and has in his veins Jewish, Arab, French, Italian and
Austro-Hungarian blood. The soprano is the Italian Sara Allegretta, the
violinist the French Jeanne Marie Conquer.

Based on fragments of Kafka’s diary as well as of his first novel
(Amerika), the four scenes have a development: the growing up to age
of a fragile young person. The musical tension is between the voice and the
instrument, heightened by the fact that the soprano and the violinist cannot
see one another. Kurt·g’ s vocal and instrumental writing is elegant –
there is no minimalism at all in the intense 50 minutes, even though there are
only two interpreters. They both have virtuoso roles. Sara Allegretta
is a soprano assoluto with the full gamut of lyric, dramatic and even
coloratura nuances; personally, in certain moments, I would have liked
also a Wagnerian pitch. Jeanne Marie Conquer was simply exquisite.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image_description=From Kafke Fragmente
product_title=Matteo D’Amico: Le Malentendu; Gyˆrgy Kurt·g: Kafka Fragmente
product_by=Le Malentendu: E. Zilio, S. Solovij, M. Millhofer, D. RadrÏguez, M. Iacomelli. Quartetti Bernini (M.Serino, Y. Ichichara, G. Saggini, V. Taddeo), M. Ceccarelli, M. Patarini, musical direction Guillaume Tournaire, stage direction Saverio Marconi, stage sets Gabriele Moreschi. Macerata, Teatro Italia.

Kafka Fragmente: S. Allegretta, J-M. Conquer. Stage direction, set, costumes and lighting Dennis Krief.
product_id=Above: From Kafke Fragmente