giovedì 16 agosto 2012

Eros and the Almighty in Music and Vision 15 luglio

Eros and the Almighty

GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits the 2012 Ravenna Festival

After twenty-three years, the Ravenna Festival has become one of the most important musical events of the summer. It started as a local initiative, mainly orchestrated by Maestro Riccardo Muti (with his worldwide reputation) and his wife (with her local industrial and business connections). It is a 'multiproduct' festival (opera, symphony, chamber music, even jazz, pop and musical comedies) on a specific theme. Initially, it catered mostly to local -- ie an Italian and especially Central Italian -- audience. This year, on the 6-8 July weekend, Ravenna (once the capital of the Roman Empire) was crowded with Japanese, French, Brits and Americans, streaming from historical monuments to music venues. Thus, the Festival has acquired a true international standing. Even though it received almost no central government financing and the burden is carried nearly entirely by local Government authorities and enterprises.

This year's theme is life and music in convents, especially in those where contacts with the outside world are forbidden. There is considerable emphasis on Roman Catholic music, but there is also room for music from other religions and continents. For example, there has been mystical choral music from Uzbekistan, Chinese rites danced by the Shen Wei group, Eastern European baroque chamber music, plus Istanbul's special blend of multidenominational music. A full week is devoted to music in Tibetan convents -- from the ancient lama chants to modern live electronics. There is also a rather unique Brazilian jazz section.

The Festival had preludes on 27 April and on 15-16 May 2012 with concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, and it will have an epilogue from 9-18 November 2012 when young artists will stage Verdi's 'popular trilogy' (Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata).

The main theme is defined in a rather unique way: following St Paul's letter -- already the core element of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 movie Through a Glass in the Darkness -- a central element is the erotic approach to the Almighty -- ie how the relationship with God required nearly a carnal knowledge -- to be His bride. This is a central point of many religions, especially of those featuring nuns and monks in convents secluded from the rest of the world.

In Ravenna, I saw and listened to a sample of performances: a double bill (ballet and opera) of Paul Hindemith theatre music conducted by Riccardo Muti, a Brazilian jazz concert, a High Mass with a rare all women Gregorian chorus and the St Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov.

The Hindemith double bill was played in the charming nineteenth century opera house. It included the ballet Nobilissima Visione (the title of the full festival) and the one act opera Sancta Susanna. The former originates from the inspiration Hindemith had by looking at Giotto's frescos depicting St Francis' life in the Baldi Chapel of Santa Croce in Florence. It was designed for a ballet to be choreographed and danced by Massine -- in the USA and the UK, it is normally titled Saint Francis. There are two versions; in Ravenna the shorter one was presented as premiered in Venice in 1938. It is neo-baroque, rather than neo-classical music, for a large orchestra: an introduction, a rondo, a march, a pastoral theme and a passacaglia. It deals with Saint Francis' life from his spiritual marriage to Saint Chiara (Lady Poverty) to the 'Song of the Creatures'. It is very joyous music with a strong sense of physical passion. Saint Francis was Alessio Rezza, Saint Chiara/Lady Poverty Gaia Straccamore; the others were dancers from the Rome Opera House (which co-financed the production and will stage it next season).

A scene from the ballet 'Nobilissima Visione' at the Ravenna Festival. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

Sancta Susanna dates from 1921, the period where expressionism dominated the European and especially the German scene. Based on a text by August Stramm, a decadent young writer killed during World War I, the opera has a single twenty-five minute act. A very religious nun is perturbed by the noise of a young couple making sex in the garden near the chapel. Her excitement erupts in desire to have sex with the statue of Christ in the chapel. Of course, her sister nuns think that this is the Devil's design and action. Sister Susanna asks for forgiveness but longs for the final punishment (to be buried alive in the chapel) and she obtains it. The opera was considered 'scandalous' in 1921: Fritz Busch declined to conduct it. In 1977, the Italian premiere in Rome triggered riots and a trial for blasphemy and offenses against religion. In 2006, La Scala presented a rather sexually explicated production -- never revived after only a few performances. The music is very interesting: a short impressionistic introduction depicting springtime, a highly expressionist score built on dissonances ending with a peaceful E flat minor.

A scene from 'Sancta Susanna' at the Ravenna Festival. Photo © 2012 Silvia Lelli. Click on the image for higher resolution

In his youth, Paul Hindemith was very intensely involved in a phenomenon that is known in stage theater history as 'Frankfurt Expressionism'. August Stramm was one of the leaders of the movement. After a few decisive years, Hindemith completely separated from this world of musical expression. Indeed, one is surprised to find that the theorist of return to formal structures and to counterpoint had mastered expressionism with such musical command to become one of its strongest and most radical opponents. In Sancta Susanna, the theme of the eruption of repressed sexuality is followed almost monothematically in the gesture of a single melody which is subjected to variations directly tracing the hidden agitation of the protagonist. We are in a musical world not distant from that of Richard Strauss' Elektra. The orchestral difficulties are matched by the impervious role of the two main singers; in Ravenna, Csilla Boross as 'Santa Susanna' and Brigitte Pinter as the nun 'Klementia'. The other characters -- an old nun and the copulating couple -- are insignificant. The stage direction was entrusted to Chiara Muti. (Sets and costumes were signed respectively by Leonardo Scarpa and Alessandro Lai). She did not delve into the sexually explicit elements (as Giorgio Pressburger had done in Rome and Giancarlo Cobelli and Patrizia Frini in Milan) but emphasized the search for forgiveness, denied by the other nuns to Sancta Susanna, and punishment.

I attended the 6 July 2012 performance. Riccardo Muti and the Cherubini orchestra were excellent in dealing, in the same evening, with hard and very different scores in terms of musical language and syntax. Nearly a virtuoso exercise for the conductor but especially for the youngsters in the pit. They were rightly acclaimed. Csilla Boross and Brigitte Pinter received ovations. No doubt a stressful evening for all. After the performance, at dinner, Maestro Muti relaxed by cracking witty jokes.

On 7 July, a totally different setting. In the main courtyard of the Medieval Rocca Brancaleone, there were no blue suits for the gentlemen or elegant dresses for the ladies. Jeans and teashirts were the normal attire. Egberto Gismonti, Nanà Vasconcelos, Hamilton de Holanda and the Trio Madeira offered three hours of Brazilian Jazz. A rather unique school which, on the one hand, echoes the melancholy of Portuguese 'fado', and on the other, attempts to go back to 'choro', the most ancient Brazilian urban street music. There are special instruments -- like a twenty chord mandolin -- and quite peculiar voices. The connection with the theme of the Festival may seem feeble, unless one knows Brazilian Portuguese. However, the songs are full of passion.

Egberto Gismonti (left) and Nanà Vasconcelos. Click on the image for higher resolution

On 8 July, at 10.30am, a rather unique High Mass in the mosaic glittering San Vitale Basilica. The difference from other High Masses with Gregorian music concerts was that Mediae Aetatis Soladicium is a women's chorus. Thus, following the Byzantine style of the Basilica, they did not sing behind the altar but in the 'matroneum', the section for women in the upper tier of the Church. Thus, the sound came from high above the assembled congregation with stereophonic effects. The opening choral number, Susceptimus cum verso, was reminiscent of virgin brides going to Christ.

Mediae Aetatis Soladicium. Click on the image for higher resolution

Eventually, my last visit was on 8 July 2012 at 9.30pm in the huge hall (built both for concerts and for basketball games!) where Yuri Temirkanov conducted the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a program opened by the solemn interweaving of Orthodox liturgical themes and popular rites in Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival and closed by the descriptive and visionary power of Modest Musorgsky's Pictures (as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel). In between these two very Russian masterpieces, we enjoyed Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy's lyrical and romantic concerto for violin and orchestra in E minor.

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