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An Ode to Ostentation

Teatro Malibran
01/25/2023 -  & January 26, 27*, 28, 29, 2023
Bruno Maderna: Satyricon
Manuela Custer (Fortunata, Quartilla), Francesca Gerbasi (Criside), Marcello Nardis (Trimalchio), Christopher Lemmings (Habinnas), William Corrò (Niceros), Francesco Milanese (Eumolpus)
Orchestra del Teatro della Fenice, Alessandro Cappelletto (conductor)
Francesco Bortolozzo (stage director), Andrea Fiduccia (sets), Marta Del Fabbro (costumes), Fabio Barettin (lighting)

(© Silvestri/Crosera)

Together with Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Gaius Petronius’s Satyricon has been described by classical scholars as a Roman novel, though this is quite distinct from the more continuous modern literary form. Though only fragments survive, it describes life in first century Rome and the extent of its moral decadence and hedonistic excess. Satyricon’s focus is on the bizarre exploits of the narrator Encolpius and his handsome young lover and slave Giton, and Encolpius’s frequent squabbles with his friend Ascyltos over the ownership of the young slave.

The eponymous Fellini film (1969) is more faithful to the Roman novel than Bruno Maderna’s short opera which focuses on only one section of the novel, namely Cena Trimalchionis, the extravagant dinner given by Trimalchio, a wealthy freedman who entertains his guests ostentatiously and in a most vulgar manner.

Satyricon has been a source of satire and criticism of materialism, synonymous with the greed and vulgarity of the nouveau riche. When choosing a title for The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald considered calling it “Trimalchio in West Egg.” A brief extract from the novel confirms Fitzgerald’s model and source of inspiration:

“It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night—and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.”

Stage director Francesco Bortolozzo’s concept was intelligent and visually stimulating: he had French architect Philippe Starck’s iconic transparent plastic Louis XVI chair placed on a table, with various trinkets–symbols of material wealth–suspended from the ceiling, all conspicuous objects to stress the ostentatiousness of the host.

The protagonists are dressed in bright colours, Trimalchio in red, sporting an Elvis costume, and Fortunata in pink, in a Marilyn dress and hairdo. The choice of Elvis and Marilyn as prototypes is à propos as both were regular people of modest background who rose to the summit, as did Trimalchio and Fortunata. The vocal score is not challenging, though I could have imagined demanding high notes for Fortunata to express sexual gratification or material acquisitions. Dramatically, Manuela Custer rose to the challenge of portraying an unlikeable and ruthless bitch. Marcello Nardis was a nuanced Trimalchio who successfully portrayed a vulgar and ostentatious host, but he was also convincing as a vulnerable man in the last part of the opera when he reads his own will and confronts his own death.

Maderna chose to translate Petronius’s Satyricon mostly into English, with some brief French and German and Latin passages. The multilingual atmosphere, reminiscent of pretentious “intellectual” dinners in several other Fellini films, is perhaps a satire of mundane society functions. This multilingual libretto is not easy for the singers, especially given its parlando nature. Marcello Nardis’s German was lacking, but it’s possible the intention was to caricature the nouveau riche feigning the mastery of foreign languages.

The only soberly-dressed character was the narrator, here Habinnas rather than Encolpius. Sung by Christopher Lemmings in cantabile recitatives, his impeccable and clear English diction made him the most effective character. His narration of the episode that recounts the “faithful” widow of Ephesus was the most effective part of the opera, as it emphasized the vacuous nature of high morality. The widow was once admired for her devotion and fidelity to her husband. But upon his death, she sat in his tomb, alongside his corpse, crying and lamenting, abstaining from nourishment for days. When a criminal was crucified nearby, the soldier keeping watch over the crucified corpse heard her quivering. He admired her great beauty and admonished her for starving herself to death in the memory of her husband. She eventually relented, ate his food and drank his wine and enjoyed his body. When the relatives of the crucified criminal stole his corpse while the soldier and the widow were copulating, the soldier said he would kill himself rather than have the authorities punish him. The widow protested and refused to lose her new lover. She offered her husband’s corpse in lieu of that of the crucified criminal. Thus, extreme rigour quickly collapsed to crass pragmatism in the face of the likelihood of losing a handsome young lover.

The experimental score was rendered more amusing thanks to myriad musical quotations, from “Musetta’s Waltz,” from Puccini’s La bohème, in a clin d’œil to Fortunata’s fickleness; to “Che farò senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice; a Kurt Weill melody; and most viciously the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida to emphasize Trimalchio’s bombast. Further cultural references were astutely used by the stage director to stress the ephemeral nature of life: a detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch during the extravagant dinner, and the central part of the same painter’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, for the opera’s final tableau.

Written by Maderna in his final days battling cancer, Satyricon premiered in 1973 at the Holland Festival in Scheveningen. Venice, the composer’s native city, enjoyed the first performance of this work in 1998 at Teatro Goldoni, in commemoration of the twenty‑fifth anniversary of the composer’s death. The current performances at Teatro Malibran are La Fenice’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Bruno Maderna’s passing. The choice of the small Teatro Malibran as the venue is a wise one, as it’s unlikely a contemporary work would fill La Fenice to capacity. Congratulations to La Fenice for giving the work five sold‑out consecutive performances, thanks to the wise decision to sell prime seats for €25 each. At such attractive prices, they were able to draw a youthful audience, an astute move, as it helps build future audiences. Their reaction to this short yet provocative work, spanning just eighty minutes, was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

Ossama el Naggar



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