Alemania

Arguments from Reason

Jesse Simon
jueves, 22 de junio de 2023
Dead Centre, Il Teorema di Pasolini © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst Dead Centre, Il Teorema di Pasolini © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst
Berlin, viernes, 9 de junio de 2023. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Giorgio Battistelli: Il Teorema di Pasolini. Libretto by the composer and Ian Burton after Pier Paolo Pasolini. Dead Centre, directors. Ángeles Blancas Gulin (Lucia), Davide Damiani (Paolo), Andrei Danilov (Pietro), Meechot Marrero (Odetta), Monica Bacelli (Emilia), and Nikolay Borchev (The Guest). Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Daniel Cohen, conductor
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Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema is not long on dialogue: its first American distributor even tried to turn the film’s lengthy silences into a selling point, with one early poster claiming “there are only 923 words spoken [in the film] … but it says everything”. Indeed, Pasolini makes his arguments – such as they are – less through spoken words than through ambiguities of action and gesture, purposeful juxtapositions and sudden cross-cuts to desolate landscapes. If the film still has the power to provoke discussion and analysis more than fifty years after it was released, it is precisely because it refuses to clarify itself by giving its characters recourse to language.

For this reason alone Teorema would seem an unlikely choice of raw material for an opera. Yet Giorgio Battistelli’s Il Teorema di Pasolini – commissioned by and given its world première at the Deutsche Oper Berlin – was just as oddly compelling as its source. While it followed the structure of the original quite closely, it was often closer to an exegesis than an adaptation; yet with its immediately appealing score and a complex but cohesive staging from theatre group Dead Centre, the opera offered an engaging commentary on the spiritual unease at the heart of Pasolini’s enigmatic story.

Where many of Pasolini’s earlier films favoured an unvarnished realism (and a preference for non-professional actors), Teorema is a work of abstraction that proceeds according to its own rigorously schematic logic. A mysterious visitor arrives at the house of a wealthy Milanese family and lives with them for a few days as a guest. During that time, each member of the household – starting with Emilia (the maid), and continuing through Pietro (the son), Lucia (the mother), Odetta (the daughter), and finally Paolo (the father) – experiences an intense sexual desire for the visitor, which is quickly consumated.

When the visitor suddenly announces he must leave, his absence provokes a different spiritual crisis in each character: the daughter, her fist clenched, refuses to leave her bed and is eventually committed to an institution; the son attempts to start a career as a painter; the mother cruises the streets in search of sexual encounters with young men who vaguely resemble the visitor; the maid returns to her rural home and becomes venerated as a miracle-performing saint before burying herself alive on a construction site; the father, wandering through the Central Station, strips off all his clothes and is next seen wandering aimlessly through the desolate volcanic landscape that has been glimpsed sporadically throughout the film.

Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.

Il Teorema is, in fact, Mr Battistelli’s second attempt to bring Pasolini’s elusive work to the stage. An earlier version, written in the late 1980s at the suggestion of Hans Werner Henze and first performed in 1990, featured only a single vocal part – for a speaker – and assigned the roles of the family to silent actors. For Il Teorema, Mr Battistelli has expanded the work to an hour and three-quarters – roughly the length of the film – and turned all six characters into singing roles. The music, although rooted in the compositional idioms and expanded instrumental techniques of the second half of the twentieth century, is neither obscure nor dogmatic: indeed the range and fluidity of Mr Battistelli’s style – his ability to move easily between static clouds of sound and passages of rhythmic propulsion – offered a necessary counterbalance to the rigid formality of the narrative structure.

Among the precipitous brass glissandi, texturally intricate string writing and decisive thumps of the bass drum, one could also hear subtle electro-acoustic flourishes, often in the form of gently unsettled ambient noise that crept in during the interludes of the opera’s first half. In the captivating instrumental interlude that bridged the work’s two halves the sudden interjection of choral voices, which sounded as though they came from an especially wobbly tape recorder, added to the mounting sense of existential crisis. Yet the non-orchestral elements were used sparingly as part of an expanded sonic palette, and never threatened to distract from the dramatic focus of the score.

The libretto – written by the composer – was intriguingly unconventional. Instead of using the (fairly banal) dialogue from the film or writing new dialogue appropriate to the scenes, the libretto had each of the characters describe their actions in the third person. On the one hand, this approach had a distancing effect – the stage action was less a drama than a factual description of a drama – which helped to preserve some of the film’s tone of clinical detachment. However by putting the action into words, the libretto was also forced to add its own interpretive gloss and, in doing so, removed some of the story’s essential ambiguities. Although Mr Battistelli drew on Pasolini’s own novel of Teorema to fill in some of the philosophical gaps, there were a few scenes in which simple description crossed the line into the kind of explanation that Pasolini – in his film version at least – so rigorously avoided.

Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.

The staging, by Dead Centre, updated the action to the present day – the teenaged Odetta wore a pair of modern headphones – while paying tribute to the look of Pasolini’s film in ways both subtle (the muted colours of the rooms) and not-so-subtle (Lucia was given the iconic hairstyle worn by Silvana Mangano). Much of the opera’s first half, took place within six smaller compartments that were reconfigured continually into the different rooms of the house. The character of each room was defined, to some extent, by wallpaper that turned out to be a video back-projection. There was also video projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage and, completing the video trifecta, a live cameraman whose filmed close-ups were mixed into the other projections. Yet for all that the staging must have been a back-stage nightmare of logistics and technology, the complexity never seemed contrived and the myriad visual elements were carefully integrated into a unified vision of the story.

The staging also inevitably added a layer of its own: the scenes in the house during the opera’s first half were presented as an experiment in behavioural psychology, monitored by a group of scientists in white protective suits. (The technical readouts of the experiment, projected onto the scrim, were among the staging’s few notable missteps: the data, which included such too-clever additions as ‘Temperature: Too hot to sleep’ and ‘Time: Later than you think’, looked as though they had been written by a bored intern). The group of scientists were, in fact, the singers and each of the characters – except the visitor, who moved between the two worlds – was doubled by an actor. In the opera’s second half, the scientific apparatus was dismantled and the singers took the place of the actors as the repercussions of the experiment began to expand beyond the confines of the six compartments.

Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.Giorgio Battistelli: ‘Il Teorema di Pasolini’. Daniel Cohen, conductor. Dead Centre, directors. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, June 2023. © 2023 by Eike Walkenhorst.

Among the solid ensemble cast the Odetta of Meechot Marrero and the Lucia of Ángeles Blancas Gulin stood out for the heightened, occasionally frantic passions that they displayed, especially in their respective scenes in the second half, while Monica Bacelli as Emilia and Davide Damiani as Paolo brought subtle authority to each of their appearances. Under the scrupulous direction of Daniel Cohen, the orchestra sounded fully attuned to the textural variety of the score, providing gently rhythmic drive to the fluctuating string passages, but investing the most explosive moments with necessary heft.

Between the structure of Mr Battistelli’s libretto and the directly referential moments of the staging, it was nearly impossible to view Il Teorema without also considering the work on which it was based. This may, however, have been Mr Battistelli’s intent: for all its invention, the opera seemed less a standalone work than an extended discussion with ideas and themes found in its source. This is in no way intended to diminish Mr Battistelli’s achievement: in transposing those themes to the operatic stage he was often able to expand upon them in ways that enriched one’s appreciation of both works. If Il Teorema erred occasionally on the side of explanation, its finest moments were able to fill the famous silences of Pasolini’s original in the best way possible.

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