by Steven Pisano
In the early 1960s, memories of Fascism and Nazism were still fresh in the collective memory of Europe. In Italy, the hateful, xenophobic government of Benito Mussolini had left deep scars on the nation, and the composer Luigi Nono, in a commission from the Venice Biennale, tried to confront these memories by writing his first opera, Intolleranza (Intolerance), dedicated to his father-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. Last Thursday, the American Symphony Orchestra and Bard Festival Chorale, under the direction of music director Leon Botstein, revived Intolleranza at Carnegie Hall.
In the story, a migrant yearns to return to his homeland from where he has been working in a mine. Along the way, he encounters social protests in the streets, he is wrongfully arrested by the police, and he is thrown in prison and tortured. His desire to simply return home transforms into a zealous passion to fight for a better world, against bureaucracy and governments and social hate. He escapes prison, and along with a woman companion, finally makes his way to the river that borders his homeland, but the river swells over its banks and swallows everything - including the migrant and his companion.
It is a story with many resonant ties to our modern world, where millions of refugees have fled from war across Europe, and where in our own country we still are firmly under the sway of the fears engendered by the attacks on September 11, from which were about as far as World War II was for Nono in 1961 when he composed Intolleranza.
Performed in a concert version (without supertitles, but with a printed libretto in the program), the opera lacked the visceral punch it surely would have had if staged as political theater. A video except from a 2011 production at the opera's original home, the jewel-like Teatro la Fenice in Venice, gives an idea of the piece's potential to rail against injustice, perhaps reimagined in a modern-day Syria or Iraq.
Tenor Daniel Weeks shouldered much of the vocal load as the migrant, though given the fact that he was dapperly dressed in black tie, it wasn't easy to picture him as a bedraggled political stranger in a strange land, persecuted by a police state and fighting for his life. Likewise for soprano Serena Benedetti, who was a magnet for the eye in a red dress and jewelry amid an entire stage filled with musicians and choristers dressed in black, not unlike the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Of special note was mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn in a sassy turn as a woman the migrant meets early in his journey. Other featured singers included baritone Matthew Worth, and bass-baritone Carsten Wittmoser.
More photos can be found here.