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New York
John Jay College of Law
07/20/2010 -  & July 21, 22*, 2010
Salvatore Sciarrino: La porta della legge (Before the Law) (North American Premiere)

Ekkehard Abele (Man 1), Gerson Sales (Man 2), Michael Tews (Gatekeeper)
Wuppertal Opera Symphony Orchestra, Hilary Griffiths (Musical Director and Conductor)
Johannes Weigand (Director), Jürgen Lier (Set and costume design), Sebastian Ahrens (Lighting Design), Jakob Creutzberg (Video design)

S. Sciarrino (© RAI Trade)

Nobody should write operas based on Franz Kafka, but if they do, they should write them like Salvatore Sciarrino. Kurtág wrote Kafka “fragments”, Glass composed In The Penal Colony, which I haven’t heard. But I cannot imagine any staging of an opera better than Sciarrino’s opera on the short story, Before The Law.

Kafka can be filmed , of course. (Welles’s The Trial is still absolutely astounding, his second best after Kane. Even Maximilian Schell’s mediocre The Castle has its moments.) But to set these drab words, these half-sentences, the pleading, hopeless, long descriptive, grey bleak Kafka words to music is near impossible.

Sciarrino took on this Augean task for Germany’s experimental Wuppertal Opera, and it is a gripping production. I wouldn’t quite call it opera, though it is half-sung, and though the instruments are sparse and repetitive. What Sciarino has done is take the dialogue–as well as descriptions–, and put it in two separate voices: one drab, unhappy baritone and one drab unhappy counter-tenor. At the end, after they have died, they sing together for a minute, and suddenly the drab empty stage turns cartwheels on itself, the video hallucinations multiplying the men until they are moving up and down and filling the stage.

This, in fact, is the ultimate symbolism. It is appropriate, yes. But it is so symbolic that it can only be described, it cannot be explained.

Who are these two men singing to? The Gatekeeper, of course. The man who says they can be let through the gate soon…or perhaps…or never…or sometime. Michael Tews plays him with such evil sarcasm, such menacing condescension that I felt I was eating a lemon, my own face squirming.

I had seen this kind face once before, and afterwards I remembered. The director Luis Bunuel’s study of paranoia, El had a priest who–in the mind of the paranoid main character–gives a sermon and suddenly giggles at him, or grins or bursts out laughing. This was not the director’s anti-Catholic stance, it was the hallucinations of one man. And Mr. Tews replicated those evil moments on stage here.

The staging which Johannes Weigand provided for the music that Sciarrino so brilliantly composed was hypnotic in its subtlety. A curtain slowly closing, a bright light, a dark light, a chair moved with ominous foreboding. It was eery, yet one couldn’t possibly have the mind wander even for a second, since every movement had its own meaning.

Sciarrino is not that familiar a composer in America, but, after the death of Berio, this Sicilian-born auto-didact composer is wildly successful, especially in the more experimental concert halls of Germany. His use of electronic music is deft, but he could not be classified that way. Instead, he can build up a phrase–or an opera–with the fewest possible notes, perhaps a phrase or two.

Sciarrino is not a minimalist at all. He does not repeat a telling phrase. Rather, he can take two or three notes, and have them tell his story.

In this opera, that motive (if one can call it a motive), is a two-note phrase on a trombone. Little more than that. It is repeated incessantly but not in any rhythmic form. Rather, one hears it, and the characters comment on it. They almost whisper their phrases. “Tired….”, “I don’t know….”…..”He is laughing at me……” The Gatekeeper is more sure of himself, and his phrases are a wee bit more complete. But that is relative. Here, we have a dialogue of grunts, a word or two, a silence, a trombone, or a wah-wah trumpet.

The result is not unnerving, but almost seductive, as we watch these people trying to communicate. One is powerless, one has ultimate power. Sciarrino’s music is neither. It is like dots on a canvas. Why are they there? We don’t know, but our eyes are drawn to the dots, just as our eats are drawn to these microscopic notes.

Like the two nights of Edgard Varèse earlier this week (Monday and Tuesday)–also part of the Lincoln Centre Festival–all three nights of Sciarrino’s opera were sold out. And like the Varèse, the audiences were stunned, silent, without the time to be puzzled.

For them, the experience was a poem. Before the Law was, as in the finest art, not transferable. It existed, and while we don’t know why, our own existence was made better by it.

Harry Rolnick



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