The Grand Inquisitor
GIUSEPPE PENNISI was at the first performance of Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' in Turin, and raises the issue of the replicability of modern grand opera Alessandro Solbiati is a fifty-five-year-old Italian composer; he holds the chair of composition at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and his works have been recorded by major labels. He is well known in Italy and abroad mostly for his chamber music. His style is rather eclectic; it follows, by and large, the twelve note row system and seems influenced more by Darmstadt than by IRCAM (two of the main schools in continental Europe) but he attempts new post-twentieth-century compositions with echoes even of ancient music intertwined with electroacoustics and live electronics. For several years he kept away from musical theatre, and in a 2009 interview said that he considered opera almost as one of the elements causing the decay of music. However, recently he turned to opera. Both his operas are inspired by Russian authors. His second opera -- La Leggenda -- was commissioned as part of a major musical Fall festival in Turin and Milan and had its premiere at the Teatro Carignano in Turin because the the larger Teatro Regio is now under repair. It took a daunting task to tempt Solbiati to opera: a work based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, one of the books of that vast novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Legend has been often dramatized (eg by Peter Brook and Diego Fabbri). The author's basic point is that if Christ returned to earth, we would kill him again, as in Bohuslav Martinu's The Greek Passion discussed here on 3 May 2011. Dostoyevsky is a deeper thinker than Nikos Kazantzakis,
the author of the novel which inspired Martinu. Thus, the task is much harder. Urban Malmberg (left) as the Grand Inquisitor with Tomaso Santinon as Jesus Christ in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor is told by Ivan Karamazov with brief interruptive questions by his brother Alyosha. In the tale, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church. Tomaso Santinon (centre) as Jesus Christ with Laura Catrani (right) as The Mother
in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptations to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favour of freedom, but the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Mark Milhofer (left) as Ivan, Laura Catrani (centre) as The Mother and Alda Caiello (right) as Alyosha (Alësa) in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution Ivan states that the Inquisitor is an atheist. According to the Inquisitor, the Catholic Church follows the dread spirit of death and destruction, the Devil. For the Inquisitor, through compulsion, the Church provided the tools to end all human suffering and for humanity to unite under its banner. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to death and destruction, they will be happy along the way. He states that anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away.
Mark Milhofer as Ivan in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution The Inquisitor advances this argument by explaining why Christ was wrong to reject each of Satan's temptations. Christ should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. Instead, Christ said 'Man cannot live on bread alone'. Throwing himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people. To rule over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor claims.
From left to right: Mark Milhofer as Ivan, Tomaso Santinon as Jesus Christ, Urban Malmberg as the Grand Inquisitor and Alda Caiello as Alyosha (Alësa) in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution Christ has been silent throughout the Grand Inquisitor's monologue. The legend ends when he kisses the Inquisitor instead of answering him. On this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into the dark alleys of the city. Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but so is its effect on the Inquisitor. Ivan concludes, 'The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea'. Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Regio di Torina at Teatro Carignano in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda'. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution This is a very difficult text to put to music. To make things even more
complicated, in Italy, a short essay by sociologist Franco Cassano -- L'umiltà del male ('The humility of evil') -- has been at the centre of intellectual and political debates as it places the legend in the context of current European and Italian politics. Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Regio di Torina at Teatro Carignano in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda'. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution Solbiati is the author of both the libretto and the score. The opera is a one act ninety minute work, divided into a prologue, three scenes and an epilogue. It is an opera-oratorio, both for its religious-philosophical contents and because there is very little action on stage. The central character is the Grand Inquisitor (the baritone Urban Malmberg) whose monologue is the core of the opera. To his grave voice, Solbiati juxtaposes the high texture of Alyosha (the soprano Alda Caiello, but the role seems to have been planned for a sopranist or a countertenor) and the dramatic prayer of The Mother (the soprano Laura Catrani; she has the only arioso of the opera). Ivan is a tenor (Mark Millhofer, who started with baroque music and now is one of the tenors mostly engaged in contemporary vocal works). A bass, Gianluca Buratto, has the short but intense role of the Spirit of the Non-Being. Christ is entrusted to two different silent actors: one in the prison and one in the final confrontation with the Inquisitor. The chorus is quite important: on the upper part of the stage a large chorus represents the Seville crowd and priests (who even have Gregorian choral singing accents). On the left side of the balcony upper tier, a vocal sextet represents the Inquisitors. Apart from The Mother's arioso and the choral Gregorian accents, the vocal writing tends towards declamation and to Sprechgesang.
Tomaso Santinon as Jesus Christ (front left) and Laura Catrani (back right, in white) as The Mother in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda' for Teatro Regio di Torina. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution A real protagonist is the orchestra, or rather the orchestras -- one in the pit, one in the stalls (or parterre) and in the side boxes, and a third small group of players on the left side of the upper balcony (to support the sextet) with the addition of soloists (celesta, guitar and an accordion), two groups of percussion and electroacoustics to fully surround the theatre with music, and for stereophonic effects. Gianandrea Noseda conducts this large and very complex system of instrumental elements. The first orchestra supports the dialogues between Ivan and Alyosha. Together, the two orchestras are in the Seville scene, only one of the two orchestras is in the prison scene. The two orchestras play again together in the final part. In the orchestras there are unusual instruments such as finger cymbals, water gong, thai gong, dobachi (a Japanese bell), tom-tom and rototom. The orchestration is very rich, rhythmic and with an Oriental, but not Middle Eastern, flavour.
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Regio di Torina at Teatro Carignano in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda'. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution A final point on the stage sets and direction (by Stefano Podda). There is a single set for the whole prologue, scenes and epilogue. Ivan and Alyosha are on two elevated platforms; on the front stage, there's a water pond and a huge wall at the back. The wall moves down to make room for the chorus on its upper part. There are many bleeding nudes (tortured by the Inquisition) in the first scene: they bathe in the pond during the Grand Inquisitor's monologue. At the end, Christ walks nude to his new martyrdom. Thus, there is action in spite of the oratorio style of the text. Solbiati's opera is, no doubt, enthralling. The audience responded warmly to the première. However, due to high production costs, can it be staged again after these few performances in Turin?
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Regio di Torina at Teatro Carignano in Alessandro Solbiati's 'La Leggenda'. Photo © 2011 Ramella & Giannese. Click on the image for higher resolution Several European theatres have in their programs operas by Italian composers such as Oscar Bianchi, Luca Francesconi, Matteo D'Amico, Luca Lombardo, Salvatore Sciarrino , Marco Tutino and others. They have comparatively small orchestras and require a limited number of singers and effects. Solbiati may very well be thinking of preparing a small theatre version of La Leggenda, as Britten did for Billy Budd. Copyright © 28 September 2011 Giuseppe Pennisi, Rome, Italy CATHOLICISM JESUS CHRIST SEVILLE SPAIN TURIN MILAN ITALY CONTEMPORARY MUSIC << M&V home Concert reviews Peter Donohoe >>