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Paul Griffiths, Luciano Berio's music-theatre work

Paul Griffiths
Luciano Berio's music-theatre work

Luciano Berio’s new music-theatre work Cronaca del Luogo (Chronik des Ortes) is not so much a story as a document – or, more, an echoing mass of documents – made to sound in, and from, a particular place: the Felsenreitschule. Many Salzburg productions in recent years have made use of this theatre’s unusual aspect and acoustics, but in Cronaca del Luogo the nature of the place is fundamental to the music of the drama and the drama of the music. The wall, cut into the rock of the mountainside, will sing. Almost all of the orchestral musicians, with half the chorus, will be placed in the tiers of galleries here at the back of the stage, their sound amplified, altered and spatially projected by means of digital technology the composer has developed in collaboration with his colleagues at his research studio in Florence, Tempo Reale.
As the work proceeds, the wall is sensed in different ways: as a barrier, as an observation point, as a building site, as a dwelling place, as a home that has to be abandoned. But Cronaca del Luogo is also, of necessity, the chronicle of another place — the open space in front of the wall, the stage area called here “the piazza”. The wall, vertical, is defined by the horizontal space around it. And these two places, wall and piazza, have different stories, or different participations in the same story. The wall is fixed, and fixes the people within it, while the piazza can be a scene of action. The wall stands for civilization, stability, home-building, safety, but also for power and its abuses, whereas the piazza is a more mutable and dangerous area. And where the wall consolidates people into a mass – though a mass of constantly shifting harmony, texture and colour in this beautiful score – the piazza can be taken over by individuals: warrior, poet, angel, grieving woman, seer. A third space, unseen, unnamed, but present throughout like a huge question mark, is that beyond the wall, beyond the actual scenes and events.
Chief among the individuals on the piazza – and the only character to appear right through the work – is R, a dramatic soprano role written for Hildegard Behrens. R is our principal witness, the person who gives voice to the memories the wall contains, and whose voice the wall echoes. She prepares, comments upon and explains the stories that live in the wall. She sings of the action – or, rather, her singing positively is the action, the action of this “azione musicale” in which the central narrative threads work through the music, and in which the function of the libretto (by the composer’s wife, Talia Pecker Berio) is to give verbal and scenic definition to moments that arise in the course of the music’s unfolding.
In Berio’s last opera, Outis, which had its Urauffuhrung at La Scala in 1996, such moments came from Classical literature, and in particular from the story of Ulysses. Here in Cronaca del Luogo the book of memories is the Hebrew Bible. R partly represents Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho who hides Joshua’s spies because she sees in them the workings of God, but in her singing she also carries herself with the pride, certainty and bodily presence of other leading women in biblical stories. In the opera’s first and third scenes, “L’assedio” (The Siege) and “La torre” (The Tower), specific stories are recalled, and the “Luogo” is first Jericho and then Babel. At other points it might be Jerusalem, the city of hope and dispute, of white stone and blood. But “Luogo” also has another meaning, in that “the place” is one of the traditional Jewish substitutes for the unpronounceable name for God. So Cronaca del Luogo is also a “chronicle” of God, or more particularly an interrogation of the presence of God, a search for a centre of rest and aspiration, a wall on the piazza of human vagaries.
The work, which is structured in five episodes, or “situations”, begins with a prologue, whose first sound is a quiet, slowly changing chord coming from the wind instruments of the wall. Wind instruments dominate the orchestra all through –whole ensembles of flutes (six) and clarinets (seven), a saxophone quartet, a single oboe and a bassoon, a big brass group with two tubas – there being just ten strings, two percussionists and an electronic keyboard. In part this wind-based orchestra serves atmospheric and evocative functions, suggesting an ancient society and such ritual gestures as the fanfare. But at the same time, wind sound is vocal sound become inarticulate (or, from a musical point of view, super-articulate), and the wind orchestra can engender, support or emerge from the choruses of singers within the wall and, oftentimes, on the piazza. This happens close to the outset, as the orchestra’s chord gives rise to the first vocal sound (on the vowel “o”) and then to the first word: “Notte” (Nacht). The double chorus, of wall and piazza people, builds to a massive climax and subsides, after which R comes on to sing her first aria, echoed by the wall, in which she summons the night to “ignite memory”. As the orchestra rises in flurries, she enters the wall. Blackout.
Blinding light and blazing orchestral chords initiate the first scene. Two men in the wall – a bass and a tenor, each accompanied by a bass clarinet – sing of love, and while they go on singing a messenger appears, to be sent away by R, who is now more or less in the role of Rahab. The piazza fills with people, among them a General (a generalization of Joshua, bass) and Phanuel (the name being that of an angel, tenor). Their dialogue at first follows a passage at the end of Joshua 5: Phanuel instructs the General to take off his shoes, because this is holy ground. The General gives his battle cry, rising to a fortissimo with the orchestra, after which Phanuel, to still, diaphanous chords, asks that not a tree be destroyed. Then the music returns to choral-orchestral clamour as the crowd on the piazza mimics the Israelites’ circlings of the walls of Jericho, and the General returns to declare a victory, cursing whomever would dare to build on the city’s ruins. R ends the scene with a lament, to the sound of quiet tremolos played by solo violin and viola (“like blowing”), a keyboard drone and gentle extensions of support from the wind orchestra.
Another aria for R begins the second scene, “Il campo” (The Field), which is an expanse of expectation. Now, with solo flute and violas prominent in the orchestra, R begins to sing intimately but decisively of premonitions. To her comes Orvid, with an attendant player on alto flute. Orvid is sung by a mezzo soprano (Monica Bacelli), but the name is a compound of Orpheus and David, and the character is, according to the librettist, “the poetic alter ego” of R. They sing together, and afterwards the orchestra reaches a point of culmination before, with a change to a faster tempo, an Ageless Man comes onto the piazza pursued by children. He foretells torrential rain, but the wall chorus softly counter this at the end, singing of blood falling on stone.
At the start of the third scene, the wall is dark while daylight begins to fall on the piazza. Nino (i.e. Nimrod, traditionally associated with the building of the Tower of Babel) comes on and performs in an ever more exalted, extravagant manner, clapping his hands and vocalizing to an accompaniment of trombones, tubas and low strings. (The role was written for the vocalist David Moss.) The piazza begins to fill with builders and supervisors, among them Abulafia (trombonist) and Sapir (trumpeter), named after a thirteenth-century mystic and a twentieth-century scholar, both of whom were concerned with the nature and capabilities of language. While Nino goes on encouraging the chorus, a Woman in Pain gives birth to a child and sings a warning, but the frantic building activity continues and the music goes on getting faster and more excited. The piazza chorus forms into two factions, the just and the idolators (who put on animal masks and costumes), with Nino skipping from one to the other. Finally, the frenzy of work becomes a fury of aggression, that rises into a linguistic tempest working out syllables and words in different languages, and then dies away into darkness on the key Hebrew word “Shibbolet”, intended here as a password.
The fourth scene, “La casa” (The Home), is a sustained choral-orchestral movement in an unchanging tempo of fast minimalistic patterns. R is on the piazza by the tree, passive and silent, while the choral text provides a commentary or interrogation, whose object is the content of the previous scenes and the real nature of R. The wall is illuminated from within as if it were an apartment block, out of which various people come silently while the wall’s voices go on murmuring of sound, building towards a climax. The word at the end is again “Shibbolet”.
This long night is followed by daylight for the final scene, “La piazza”, which opens with slow, soft music for the orchestra and wordless wall chorus. Assorted people come onto the piazza, including three musicians (on violin, clarinet and accordion), watched by R, whose premonitory aria again finds resonance in the instruments and voices of the wall. Two workers arrive to measure the wall and the piazza, followed by Orvid and Phanuel. R goes into a dramatic aria, in which she foresees disaster and calls for flight. The children come back, now leading the Ageless Man, and a Mayor enters with sinister “visitors” in boots and waterproofs who seem to be taking possession of the piazza. The people line up as if to go—or be taken—somewhere, and R calls on them to sing, even without moving their lips: to sit on the ruins and sing. All the choral singers are now on the piazza and they do sing, to words partly taken from Paul Celan (a source also, with Marina Tsvetayeva, for some of R’s arias): “Flute, double flute of the night, ignite the question, in the night, nobody answers, in the wind of the night, then comes the fire, and after the fire the voice of a long silence. Set your flag at halfmast, memory. Today and forever.”
“The idea of an ever-present, ever-changing wall,” the composer has said, “is developed also musically through an ever-present, ever-changing harmonic wall, from which all the musical events are deduced. In the dramaturgy of Cronaca del Luogo the vastness of the biblical landscape is condensed into more or less specific characters and episodes. Musically, the vastness of the harmonic wall generates musical events which are either very simple (like the ‘middle-eastern’ street music played by the piazza musicians in ‘L’assedio’, the ‘klezmer’ they play in ‘La piazza’, the children’s chorus or the almost minimalist developments of ‘La casa’) or very complex (through the extended use of heterophonies, developed also by electronic devices: samplers, delay systems, harmonizers, patterns of sound location, the ‘vocalization’ of instruments, and so on). This constant textural and musical process never comes to a linear narrative continuity, and the occasional blinding light has the function of interrupting a potential continuity and preventing further involvement with that site. The total form is that of separate fragments, but in one unchangeable and cohesive whole: advancing through the work is like opening a book and turning its pages in various directions. The ‘narrative’ is characterized by an ‘all-knowing’ and ironic disorder that nevertheless gives the work its only possible order. In the final episode, ‘La piazza’, everything dies away and there is a kind of catharsis, with the full choir onstage, performing as if on a concert platform, and with the conductor visible for the first and only time.”

*Published with this title in Luciano Berio. Cronaca del Luogo. Azione musicale, testo di Talia Pecker Berio, Milano, Ricordi, 1999 (English-Italian edition), pp. 4, 6, 8 and 10 (English), pp. 5, 7, 9 and 11 (Italian); reprinted with the title Cronaca del Luogo – Chronik des Ortes in Cronaca del Luogo, in the program book of the first performance of Cronaca del Luogo, Salzburger Festspiele 1999, Salzburg, 1999: 10-14 (in German), and with the title Cronaca del Luogo – Chronicle of the Place in the English supplement of the same program book: 2-5.