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Luciano Berio, Cronaca del Luogo

Luciano Berio
Cronaca del Luogo (1999)*

There is no “subject” in the usual sense and no libretto that can be recounted. So there is no linear story with a beginning, a more or less conflictual development and an end. Cronaca del Luogo is not an opera but, like all my theatrical works, an “azione musicale”. This means that the music generates everything and is responsible for everything, even though the course it takes has been profoundly influenced by the architecture of Talia Pecker Berio's text. But at the same time the text has adapted itself, down to the smallest details, to the musical discourse, establishing a dialogue with it that is as intense as it is discontinuous and unpredictable. The same thing, at least in part, hat already happened with La vera storia, Un re in ascolto and Outis. In Cronaca del Luogo the architecture and the course of the music assimilate the text and the dramaturgy in different forms. I wanted text, music and theatre to interpenetrate each other with an appearance of freedom, while all being able – each on its own account – to maintain an autonomous discourse. Rather like perfectly identified parts in virtual polyphony.
The point in common among all the ways in which the music takes possession of the text is a tendency to essentiality, to discontinuity, to intermittence of dramaturgy and, briefly, to a certain reciprocal indifference between music, text and theatre. In the continuity of the work's musical architecture, but also within each scene, there is much expressive unanimity among these three components. Above all when the central character of R, incarnated by Hildegard Behrens, is present. But one of the provocations I wanted to highlight, and I insist on this point, remains the possibility of developing contradictions, acts of distancing, and fleeting and virtual situations.
The text by Talia Pecker Berio has long and deep roots in the Bible and, in certain respects, in two poetic voices of our own century: Paul Celan and Marina Cvetaeva. As for the title, there is a story behind that. When Talia and I started to look for one, I thought that if I had been French I would have chosen Chronique de Dieu. A difficult title, of course, but one which attracted me because of the contradiction between the two terms and because of the mildly ironic connotations – in French – of bringing them together.
But irony and contradiction are not really divine attributes and, perhaps for this reason, I realized that this title was untranslatable. In any language other than French it became heavy and seemed blasphemous. So we settled for Cronaca del Luogo, the “Luogo” (place) being, in Jewish tradition, one of the ways of naming a God whose name cannot be spoken.
But there is something else behind the title. Ever since its conception, this work has been influenced by the theatre in which it will come into being: the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg. In this sense our work is also a “chonique du lieu”. The Felsenreitschule has always fascinated me, with its wall full of “rooms” and its “piazza” where the performance takes place. The wall was carved out of the rock in 1698 to enable the Salzburgers to watch equestrian events in the space below. In the Twenties the director Max Reinhardt transformed the place to accommodate theatre, and in 1948 Herbert von Karajan first used it for opera.
In Cronaca del Luogo the chorus and instrumentalists are disposed in this wall, about 25 metres high and 30 metres wide, rising above the “piazza” where the “action” takes place, and which is inhabited by very diverse presences (and not only vocal ones). In this “piazza” the figure of R is a monumental presence, at times evoking dome salient features of intellectual and vocal history of her interpreter. But R will also stimulate something new.
The chorus and orchestra, placed vertically in the wall, will be invisible, as will the conductor. But perhaps it is no exact to speak about an orchestra... It is rather a group of 50 instrumentalists, to whom I often give a role as soloists: a sort of expanded and diversified chamber music, The same thing happens with the chorus, which is often divided into solo textures and utterances.
From the acoustic point of view the vocal and instrumental “strategy” is sometimes similar to what I experimented with in Coro, although musically the two works are poles apart and wit the major difference that in Cronaca del luogo the voices and instruments are positioned in the wall.
The structure of the ensemble is of course particularly complex, but, at the same time, new and fascinating. This verticality generates and intensifies its own musical and acoustic qualities, helped by the use of various kinds of computer technology.
But the presence, or rather the idea, of this wall also influenced the text, sometimes in occasional references, frequently in an allegorical way (walls of Jericho, Tower of Babel) and in the birth of certain characters, certain situations, certain events, which often appeared to be generated by what is, virtually, hidden in this impenetrable wall.
The music is of course involved just as much as the text in this phenomenon, which can be considered as a tribute on my part to a reality which directors do not always take into account: what one sees and perceives is always conditioned by what one does not see.
I can analyse my music, but I certainly cannot describe it. That is something that cannot be done. I can only say that I have constructed a true harmonic wall (in the broadest and strongest sense of the term, structurally speaking), on which are inscribed – rather like graffiti – different figures, and starting from which musical procedures are eradicated, deduced, developed – procedures with a conflictual and often contradictory character. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I m large, i contain multitudes.)”
Musical theatre today inevitably bears a burden of conflicts. But it must learn to use them wisely, in an innovative and constructive way (in this sense Brecht certainly still has something to teach it), without forgetting that at one time the audience identified with the characters of even the dullest operas, thus according them success.
This almost physiological need for identification with a character and a plot is largely satisfied today by cinema and television. It is even conditioned by the laws of a market which seeks to sell its products to an an increasingly vast and obtuse clientele. But I see nothing tragic or surprising in this situation: it has always been like this, albeit on a smaller scale.
Musical theatre today must be conscious of its genetic inheritance. It must not forget that an opera house remains a museum, sacrosanct and indestructible, and that conditions are ripe for constructing a better and different future, for forming a more aware and interesting audience, an audience of real listeners and not consumers of music.

* First published as an interview with Michel Lambert: La nouvelle chronique de Luciano Berio, «Opéra International. Le magazine de l’art lyrique» 137 (1999): 24-25; a bilingual edition was published almost simultaneously in Luciano Berio, Cronaca del Luogo. Azione musicale, testo di T. Pecker Berio, Ricordi, Milano 1999: 13 and 15 (Italian), 12 and 14 (English). For the genesis of the text see Luciano Berio, Scritti sulla musica, a cura di A. I. De Benedictis, Torino, Einaudi 2013: 525.