In Italy, a mix of modern music and religion

RELIGION and opera have often met and mixed in strange, diverse ways. Great biblical narratives have provided settings for fictitious accounts of human love and intrigue. One thinks of Verdi's ``Nabucco'' (Nebuchadnezzar) and Rossini's ``Mo"ise et Pharon'' (Moses and Pharaoh). Some composers have turned to biblical accounts of lust and passion for their themes, as Charles Gounod does in ``Sampson et Dalila''' and Richard Strauss does in ``Salome.'' One composer - Richard Wagner - even tried to create a ``sacred festival drama'' based on the old Breton legend of Parsifal, knight of the Holy Grail. Here in Italy, new admixtures of religion and opera have emerged this season. Two newly commissioned operas are attempting to provide - in their diverse ways - moments for spiritual meditation: ``Genesi'' (Genesis) by the well-known, much-admired, classically trained pop/rock composer Franco Battiato, and ``Trionfo della notte'' (Triumph of the Night) by the little-known Adriano Guarnieri. Both of these works rely on religious poems for texts. But unlike their operatic forerunners, both eschew plot, story line, and named characters.

``Genesi,'' created for the Teatro Regio in Parma, is a pastiche - visually, verbally, and musically. The libretto - created by the composer in association with Tommaso Tramonti - is made up of meditative poems and prayers in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, and Greek, with quotations from the Latin rites of the Roman Catholic Church and bits of Italian dialogue. The first act is concerned with the biblical account of the Flood, the second with a voyage into space (complete with a ``cosmic dance''), the third with ``death and the new world.'' In spite of the lingual variety, the text offers a paucity of comprehensible meaning.

The music Mr. Battiato has produced is clearly derived from his work in the pop/rock field. With full symphonic pit orchestra, pre-recorded tape, and synthesized sound at his disposal, he has produced a thrilling commercial sound, strong on impact, weak in substance. The vocal forces consist of four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), who are miked with wireless body mikes, a singer/ narrator, and a very large mixed chorus that is always on stage. Barriato's musical writing - other than the pre-recorded tape and the synthesized sounds - resembles that of the ``minimalists''; it's filled with sustained chords that slowly shift and modulate, punctuated from time to time by interesting rhythmic figures.

Stage director Enrico Maghenzani spared no expense on stunning visual elements for ``Genesi.'' The show has whirling dervishes and a chanting Benedictine monk. It has laser beams, TV images, moving platforms, and computer graphics. Taken together, they made the production seem more like a variety show than an opera.

In the program booklet for ``Genesi,'' composer Battiato asked an important question: ``Couldn't the music, couldn't the experience [of the opera] be more than just the effect of its constituent elements?'' Indeed it could; but it wasn't.

Because of his fame as a pop composer, Battiato had filled the opera house in Parma; the young, style-conscious audience was reminiscent of the cult following that pursues Philip Glass and his music in New York. An entirely different atmosphere pervaded the Teatro Delle Celebrazione where the Teatro Comunale in Bologna premi`ered Adriano Guarnieri's ``Trionfo della notte.'' The house lights were turned low to provide a reverential atmosphere for the arriving audience, the curtains parted on stage to reveal softly-lit elements suggestive of a De Chirico ``metaphysical painting.''

``Trionfo'' is Mr. Guarnieri's first attempt at creating a stage work. The book for the work was freely assembled by the composer from Pier Pasolini's cryptic, existentialist poems, ``Religione del mio tempo'' (Religion of My Time). Guarnieri grouped the selected poems into four scenes without intermission: The Nostalgia of Life, To a Boy, Triumph of the Night, and Religion of My Time. Since the text has no story line, stage director Giorgio Marini used mimes and dancers on stage to create appropriate ``living pictures.'' These seemed to be inspired by the religious paintings of Piero Della Francesca.

The vocal sounds were produced in the orchestra pit (with one exception). The group Guarnieri calls ``chorus'' was made up of five solo voices: three sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, and a contralto. The true ``soloists'' were three in number - two sopranos and a tenor - who always performed in the pit except for the final scene, in which they sang and took part in the action on stage.

Because of the text's elusive nature, what was seen on stage more nearly resembled ballet than opera. And because of the form and structure of the vocal elements, what we heard was more like a Monteverdi madrigal/opera in non-tonal harmonies than any known type of 19th-century Romantic opera.

The music held great interest. The vocal writing derived from sprechstimme. But Guarnieri writes better for instruments than for voice, so the overture was the most intriguing aspect of the show.

In the program, the composer says he wanted the work to be ``the finest in every theatrical respect: the triumph of its fantasy, the quality of its madrigals, the force of its passions, the melodiousness of the songs.'' Well, perhaps.

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