Fragments of Perception: Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo at the Teatro alla Scala

Salvatore Sciarrino – Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo

La Cantatrice – Laura Aikin
Musico – Charles Workman
Letterato – Otto Katzameier
Pasquozza – Sonia Grané
Chiappina – Lena Haselmann
Solfetto – Thomas Lichtenecker
Finocchio – Christian Oldenburg
Minchiello – Emanuele Cordaro
Giovane Cantore – Ramiro Maturana
Coro – Hun Kim, Massimiliano Mandozzi, Chen Lingjie, Oreste Cosimo, Sara Rossini, Francesco Manzo

Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Maxime Pascal
Stage director – Jürgen Flimm

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Friday, November 24th, 2017.

As part of its commitment to present the music of our time, the Teatro alla Scala has followed up on the 2015 premiere of CO2 by Giorgio Battistelli with a new work by Salvatore Sciarrino – Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo.  Both Batistelli and Sciarrino are viewed as Italy’s pre-eminent living composers and it was interesting to be able to witness new works by both within a couple of years.  Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo is a co-production with the Berlin Staatsoper, where it will be seen next summer in Jürgen Flimm’s staging, with almost entirely the same cast as here in Milan.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
The baroque has long been a fascination of Sciarrino’s and in this piece, we see the opera set in an imagined palazzo where a singer, a chorus, a writer and musician, and some servants prepare for a performance of the work of Alessandro Stradella.  Stradella is an ever-present presence in the work – we never see him (or do we? There are hints that he appears at the end) – but instead he is there through quotations of his music performed by the cast and orchestra.  These quotations take various forms, sometimes quite lengthy, others only hinted at in the shape of individual vocal lines.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
This is a work that thrives on perception and its use of space.  There are three orchestras – one in the pit, one onstage and one off-stage.  There are times in which we are not sure where the sound is coming from – is it from underneath or is it from beyond?  Likewise, the stage is divided in three: we see the preparations for the performance, we see the writer and musician discussing separately and we see guests going about their business, eating dinner.  These three stage dimensions appear to exist in co-existence yet separately.  They could have been happening at completely different times or they could have been happening simultaneously.  Only towards the middle of Act 2 do we become aware that, in fact, these three scenes converge.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
Flimm’s staging feels as much a part of the composition as the work itself.  There’s a fluidity to it, with constant stage action making us aware that the events of one, feed into the other.  The musical sound world is fascinating – from almost impossibly high string harmonics to wah-wah trumpets.  Yet despite writing for two of the world’s leading lyric theatres and the orchestral and choral forces available to him, Sciarrino exploits his forces with extreme delicacy.  The orchestral lines rarely rise above mezzo forte, making it easy for the singers to get the text across.  He makes frequent use of silence, making silence as much of a musical effect as the orchestral writing itself.  At times, the only accompaniment is barely perceptible percussion.  The libretto, Sciarrino’s own with inspirations from Ovid, Rilke, Basho and others, thrives in the unknowable – preserving the enigmatic air that pervades the work.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
This enigmatic nature, the not quite knowing where or who is both a strength and, I would argue, a weakness of the work.  In many ways it feels that we are watching an art installation – the music is so married to the visuals, with haunting stage pictures that seem to be inextricably linked to the musical tapestry.  The sheer beauty of the instrumental palette, the vocal lines that emphasize exquisiteness of tone, make for an audibly ravishing experience.  Yet I left the theatre asking myself: is this a dramatic work?  Did I get a sense of discovering something, of meeting real flesh and blood characters I didn’t know before?  I’m not convinced the answer is yes.  There is a dichotomy here between the named characters – the servants – and the unnamed, the singer, writer and musician.  They spend the evening in apparently dialogical exchange yet ultimately, that exchange is left without conclusion.  Perhaps that is the point – as the libretto mentions ‘la musica incontra il corpo.  Tocca e accarezza.  Brividi, penetra.  Sconvolge cuore e respiro’ and that may well be what Sciarrino wanted to leave us with.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
Musically, the level of preparation was absolutely staggering.  The six-voiced chorus sang with mellifluous beauty of tone – pitching unison passages apparently from the air with unfailing accuracy.  Maxime Pascal, director of Paris’s experimental le Balcon orchestra, marshalled his forces with ease, maintaining precisely that accuracy needed.  He was fascinating to watch – his gestures always clear and precise and he brought out the poetic exquisiteness of the score with ease.  The Scala orchestra gave us playing of great delicacy, working at the boundaries of sound and with an apparently limitless range of orchestral colours.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
Sciarrino’s vocal lines were extremely well written.  They sounded eminently singable – no rapid shifts between the registers on single words so beloved of many contemporary composers.  Instead, they felt declamatory yet lyrical.  That doesn’t mean that he didn’t take his singers to the extremes of their registers – it was always done in a way that facilitated, rather than hindered vocal production.  Laura Aikin gave us some beautiful singing as the Singer, technically immaculate, frequently making use of pure tone as an expressive device.  She offered easy glissandi and a ravishing top – always absolutely even.  She made some of her more angular writing sound like the easiest thing in the world.  Charles Workman likewise exploited an almost baritonal lower register along with a bright and clarion top to his role as the Musician, again always even in emission.  Otto Katzameier brought a world-weary bass-baritone to the role of the Writer – slightly raspy in tone but with wonderful resonance.  In the supporting cast, Sónia Grané displayed another soprano of distinctive loveliness as Pasquozza.  I was also impressed by the countertenor Thomas Lichtenecker.   He used his voice with great agility from a baritonal bottom to a rounded and healthy middle in a role that allowed him to demonstrate the versatility of his instrument.  I enjoyed Emanuele Cordaro’s handsome bass as Minchiello and in the brief role of the Giovane Cantore (perhaps Stradella himself), Ramiro Maturana also displayed an equally handsome baritone.

Photo: © Matthias Baus
The Scala had clearly devoted all of their considerable resources to the work and one could not have wished for a better birth for this new contribution to the repertoire.  Is this a work that has a future as a repertoire piece?  After a first viewing, I’m in two minds.  While there is a fascination to the fact that this is a piece that reveals itself slowly, I’m left with a nagging doubt that it takes slightly too long to do so.  Sciarrino attempts to make time stand still, revelling in the beauty of his sound world and in what is intimated rather than made clear.  Perhaps this is the point.  Music is ephemeral, it lasts in the moment, when it stops it no longer exists.  Certainly a stimulating evening in the theatre and one undoubtedly worth experiencing.

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