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Modernist Mise-en-scène: Luigi Nono and the Politics of Staging

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020


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1 ‘Every performance is a sandcastle, an ephemeral cathedral that, with the passing years, loses the contours, flickers, tapering into the waters of memory. Thinking back to the majestic edifice-performances constructed by the great directors, one would like to ask, as in the macabre dances of the Baroque: where are you, Meyerhold? Where are you, Stanislavsky? What remains, if not a shrill cliquetis of words? There remain skeletons of scores, faded photographs, yellowing language of clippings and testimonies (not always reliable).’ Angelo Maria Ripellino, Il trucco e l'anima: I maestri della regia nel teatro russo del novecento (Turin, 1965), 11. All translations are my own unless otherwise stated.

2 A video of the installation can be seen over three clips on YouTube: <>, <> and <> (accessed 19 September 2014).

3 I use the term ‘performance art’ to denote participatory forms of theatrical art that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, explicitly defining themselves against traditional Western theatre practices.

4 <> (accessed 5 May 2014).

5 This was not Rubbi's first encounter with Nono's opera: the previous year the artist had begun a Trascrizione della prima di Intolleranza 1960 (2010–11), which transcribed all the verbal altercations, whistles and applause that took place at the opera's turbulent première (a group of neo-Fascists had disrupted the performance, throwing down from the highest tier in the theatre leaflets that denounced the work). This sourcebook formed the basis for Rubbi's 2010 performance Piero e Alweg, which took place in the 1961 South Station ALWEG monorail in Turin, and during which actors recited the Trascrizione while trumpeter Guido Mazzon improvised.

6 The broadcast was of the first performance, on 28 January 2011; there were further performances on 30 January and 1, 3 and 5 February. Originally commissioned by the Venice Biennale, the première had taken place on 13 April 1961.

7 A member of the Italian Communist Party, Nono saw politics as inseparable from composition. Such attitudes pervade Intolleranza, to the extent that some commentators in 1961 denounced it as propaganda. For more on the genesis of the opera, see Angela Ida De Benedictis, ‘“Intolleranza 1960” di Luigi Nono: Opera o evento?’, Philomusica On-line, 1/1 (2001), <> (accessed 30 May 2014). For an overview of the première and its reception, see Harriet Boyd, ‘Remaking Reality: Echoes, Noise and Modernist Realism in Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 24 (2012), 177–200.

8 Ben Earle, ‘The Politics of the New Music’, Music and Letters, 94 (2013), 664–71 (p. 664). The same sentiment underpins Andrea Santini's recent article, ‘Multiplicity – Fragmentation – Simultaneity: Sound-Space as a Conveyor of Meaning, and Theatrical Roots in Luigi Nono's Early Spatial Practice’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 137 (2012), 71–106.

9 David J. Levin, Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky (Chicago, IL, 2007), 177.

10 Other recent publications – in addition to those under review – include Luigi Nono, Scritti e colloqui, ed. Angela Ida De Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi, 2 vols. (Milan, 2001); L'ascolto del pensiero: Scritti su Luigi Nono, ed. Gianvincenzo Cresta (Milan, 2002); Nono, Vedova: Diario di bordo: Da ‘Intolleranza ’60’ a ‘Prometeo’, ed. Stefano Cecchetto and Giorgio Mastinu (Venice, 2005); Angela Ida De Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi, Luigi Nono: La nostalgia del futuro: Scritti scelti, 1948–1986 (Milan, 2007); and Luigi Nono, Carteggi concernenti politica, cultura e Partito Comunista Italiano, ed. Antonio Trudu (Florence, 2008).

11 See also, for example, Bruno Maderna and Wolfgang Steinecke, Carteggio/Briefwechsel, ed. Rossana Dalmonte (Lucca, 2001); Luciano Berio and Fedele D'Amico, Nemici come prima: Carteggio 1957–1989, ed. Isabella D'Amico (Milan, 2002); and the Italian translation of Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Werner Henze, Briefe einer Freundschaft, ed. Hans Höller (Munich and Zurich, 2004) as Lettere da un'amicizia (Turin, 2008).

12 Helmut Lachenmann's studies with Nono thus corresponded with the period leading up to the composition of Intolleranza. Lachenmann helped to prepare the rehearsal score, as well as later compiling the vocal score (pp. 76–87).

13 For example, a 1961 unpublished essay by Lachenmann for the journal Kunst heute, entitled simply ‘Luigi Nono’, discusses the scandal of the Intolleranza première (pp. 232–44). Lachenmann also speculates on what the reception of the forthcoming performances of the opera in Germany will be, and how its noisy politics will play out in the West German context.

14 Rainer Nonnenmann, Der Gang durch die Klippen: Helmut Lachenmanns Begegnungen mit Luigi Nono anhand ihres Briefwechsels und anderer Quellen, 1957–1990 (Wiesbaden, 2013).

15 Yet in other ways, the reader's experience is somewhat curtailed: the clippings from contemporary newspapers, for example, are often partially obscured or incomplete, thus hampering the book's usefulness for scholars.

16 An offshoot of this culture of reification is historically informed performance practices, which are thus applied just as much to Handel and Bach as to the more recent music of modernism's own canon. The modernist fallacy is the subject of Richard Taruskin's critique of historically informed performance, in his Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford, 1995).

17 I use the term ‘staging’ here in the broadest sense, to refer to the method of the opera's presentation.

18 <> (accessed 24 June 2014).

19 Luigi Nono, Intolleranza, ed. Angela Ida De Benedictis (Mainz, 2013).

20 These issues of text setting were the grounds of Karlheinz Stockhausen's infamous 1957 Darmstadt lecture ‘Musik und Sprache’; a revised version was published in Die Reihe, 6 (1960), 36–58, and in Karlheinz Stockhausen, Texte zur Musik, ed. Dieter Schnebel, 6 vols. (Cologne, 1963–89), ii: Texte zu eigenen Werken, zur Kunst Anderer: Aktuelles (1964), 149–66.

21 For more on the perceived noise of Intolleranza, see Boyd, ‘Remaking Reality’.

22 Mary Ann Smart, ‘Resisting Rossini, or Marlon Brando plays Figaro’, Opera Quarterly, 27 (2011), 153–78.

23 Konwitschny's 2001 Deutsche Oper, the 2011 Venice and the 2013 Augsburg Theatre productions, for example, have all employed metal scaffolding structures. Only a modest metal structure was used in the 1961 production.

24 This argument has been around for some time, and is most famously articulated in Carolyn Abbate's seminal essay ‘Music: Drastic or Gnostic?’, Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 505–36, which itself leans heavily on Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ, 2003).

25 As the Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda, who worked on both the 1961 and 1965 productions of Intolleranza, commented: ‘The play of actors cannot exist without the film, and vice-versa – they become one thing. One is not the background for the other; instead, you have a simultaneity, a synthesis and fusion of actors and projection.’ Quoted in Jarka Burian, The Scenography of Josef Svoboda (Middletown, CT, 1971), 83.

26 For more on ANT, see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford, 2005).

27 Ibid., 4.

28 Thus there is no looming work determinant governing every iteration: just as for Latour ‘there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society – or doesn't produce one’. Ibid., 8.

29 Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, trans. Saskya Iris Jain (New York, 2008), 187.

30 Martin Seel, ‘Inszenieren als Erscheinenlassen: Thesen über die Reichweiter eines Begriffs’, Ästhetik der Inszenierung, ed. Josef Früchtl and Jörg Zimmermann (Frankfurt, 2001), 48–62 (p. 53).

31 For more on Fischer-Lichte's definitions of performance and production, see her ‘Einleitende Thesen zum Aufführungsbegriff’, Kunst der Aufführung – Aufführung der Kunst, ed. Fischer-Lichte, Clemens Risi and Jens Roselt, Theater der Zeit: Recherchen, 18 (Eggersdorf, 2004), 11–26.

32 Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance, 188.

33 The Italian reception of the 2011 Venice performances continually touched on the issue of whether Intolleranza could be seen to resonate with contemporary events, or whether it was inevitably now a historical artefact; see, for example, Giuseppina Manin, ‘Nono riaccende le passioni civili’, Corriere della sera (26 January 2011); Enrico Bettinello, ‘Intolleranza 1960 cinquant'anni dopo’, Il giornale della musica (30 January 2011); Roberto Mori, ‘Intolleranza 1960: Teatro totale o antiteatro?’ (19 March 2011), Il blog di Roberto Mori: Un critico all'opera (<>, accessed 26 May 2014).

34 Even by 1965 different technologies were available: Svoboda employed a new screen technology (the Eidophor) for video projection in the Boston production, using images from outside on the streets (Josef Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, ed. and trans. Jarka Burian (New York, 1993), 79). This is seemingly a direct gesture towards contemporary performance art: RoseLee Goldberg, for example, talks about ‘the lure of the street, and of the “real” in the 1960s’ (Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (London, 1988), 11).

35 The notion of the homo sacer, that is, of a societal outlaw who may be killed with impunity, is from Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA, 1998).

36 Clemens Risi has also recognized the potential productivity of seeing Regietheater and performance art as coterminous; see his ‘Shedding Light on the Audience: Hans Neuenfels and Peter Konwitschny Stage Verdi (and Verdians)’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 14 (2002), 201–10.

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