Monday, January 30, 2012

Lou Salomé at La Fenice and Il Giorno della Memoria

Photo: Michele Crosera for La Fenice
(Venice, Italy) In a post entitled Don Giovanni and the Man of Stone, I wrote the following sentence on October 6, 2010:

Or, perhaps, someone should make an opera out of the life of Lou Andreas-Salomé, novelist, poet, and psychoanalyst, friend to Freud and mistress to both Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche, and someone who could teach Don Giovanni a thing or two.

Angeles Blancas Gulin as Lou Salomé
Obviously, at the time I wrote that, I had no idea that, in fact, someone had written an opera about Lou Andreas-Salomé -- and that someone was a Venetian, no less! I can just imagine the amusement the above sentence must have provoked for those in-the-know, especially since I had written a somewhat forceful critique of what I thought was wrong with the Don Giovanni and the Man of Stone production. Not only that, but Giuseppe Sinopoli, the composer of the opera Lou Salomé, studied music at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory here in Venice, the very venue where Don Giovanni and the Man of Stone was performed. The Lou Salomé production at La Fenice was an impressive touché, and I am chuckling as I write this. 

Giuseppe Sinopoli was born on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1946 in Venice. He died, spectacularly, of a heart attack on April 20, 2001 at the age of 54 while on stage at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, conducting Verdi's Aida -- the same opera with which he made his debut in Venice in 1978. In addition to being a composer and conductor, he had a degree in medicine, wrote books, and was just about to receive his Laurea in Archeology. From Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Sinopoli
On 20 April 2001, Sinopoli died of a heart attack while conducting Giuseppe Verdi's Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The performance was dedicated to the memory of the company's late chief director, Goetz Friedrich. Two nights later, Marcello Viotti stepped in to direct Aida, and dedicated his performance to Sinopoli's memory. His funeral in Rome on 23 April was attended by the Italian President and Prime Minister, as well as a large contingent from La Scala. He was survived by his wife Silvia and two sons....

Every October since 2005, Taormina Arte has dedicated a festival to Giuseppe Sinopoli, the artistic director of the Music section of the Taormina Festival from 1989 to 1997. The Giuseppe Sinopoli Festival does not only celebrate the man as a musician and as a conductor but also as a composer, a doctor, an archaeologist and intellectual, with a variety of events from music and literature, theatre and art to conferences, exhibitions, publications and, of course, concerts.

Now that I have seen the opera, it seems obvious that someone who was raised in Venice would find the subject matter of Lou Salomé fascinating enough to create an opera based on her life. There is an intellectualism particular to Venice, which other parts of the world might find difficult to relate to. In fact, Sinopoli's obituary in the British newspaper, The Guardian, highlights just that unique quality -- although David Nice, the author, describes it as "Italian." Sinopoli was the principal conductor for the Philharmonic Orchestra in London from 1984 to 1994.

His compositions, like his later conducting, combined structural rigour with sensuous textures. Yet few of them have been heard in this country; and after the 1981 Munich premiere of his opera Lou Salome, taking as its protagonist the far-from-bluestocking colleague and muse of Nietzsche and Freud, composing took a back seat to conducting.

The players, of course, remained baffled by Sinopoli's peculiarly Italian brand of intellectualism; London musicians never like too much talk, let alone an analytic seminar on the work in question. The Philharmonia relationship, buckling under the weight of the critical opprobrium, nearly came to an end in early 1990; but Sinopoli stayed on in his ennobled capacity as music director until 1994. There was too much at stake - the ever-fruitful contract with Deutsche Grammophon and tours to countries such as Japan and Germany, which idolised the maestro as Britain never did. 

Photo: Michele Crosera for La Fenice
For Lou Salomé, the opera, helmed by the German conductor, Lothar Zagrosek, the interior of Teatro La Fenice had been utterly transformed, turned into a theatre in-the-round thanks to the Faculty of Design and Art at IUAV di Venezia (Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia), which was responsible for the set, direction, lights and costumes. A tree was in the center of the theater; a sofa and desk on stage, surrounded by tumbling books. A small section of the audience was seated on the stage itself. Performers entered and exited from various locations, most interestingly, from one of the lower theater boxes. 

The opera was in German with Italian subtitles, which were projected behind the orchestra, who were seated onstage -- which sometimes made it difficult to view the action in the center and the words at the same time, but that is a minor quibble. The performers were excellent; the lighting superb; when La Fenice started burning, the theater boxes slowly consumed in flame, up, up, up towards the ceiling... there was a silent gasp... even though it was a lighting trick, it brought back too many familiar memories of when La Fenice had really burned to the ground on January 29, 1996, sixteen years ago.  

Salomé, Reé & Nietzche
Lou Salomé, the opera, brought to life the Russian psychoanalyst and author, Lou Salomé, (played by Angeles Blancas Gulin), her younger self (Georgia Stahl) and a few of her distinguished lovers and companions. Salomé was born on February 12, 1861, the only daughter of a Russian army officer in a family with five additional male offspring, who grew up to be a true independent woman and original thinker. She died on February 5, 1937. Her circle included the renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900) (played by Claudio Puglisi); the German writer, Malwida von Meyensbug (1816-1903) (played by Julie Mellor), friend of Nietzche and Wagner; the German author and philosopher, Paul Kleé (1849-1901) (played by Gian Luca Pasolini), also a friend of Nietzche, who would become part of a ménage à trois; the renowned Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926); and the professor Friedrich C. Andreas, whom she married with the understanding that theirs would be a platonic relationship. Salomé also had an impact on Sigmund Freud, and we all know who he was. 

To me, the opera was about a daring, intelligent woman, daughter of a General, who came together with group of profound thinkers before, during, and after great European wars -- World War I: 1914-1918 and World War II: 1939-1945 -- wars of destruction that the United States has not experienced on its own soil for a very long time. Salomé was 52-years-old when World War I broke out; she died a week before her 76th birthday, two years before World War II officially began. 

From Wikipedia:

A few days before her death the Gestapo confiscated her library (according to other sources it was an SA group who destroyed the library, and shortly after her death). The pretense for this confiscation: she had been a colleague of Sigmund Freud's, had practiced "Jewish science," and had many books by Jewish authors in her library.

What was the SA? They sound a bit like today's "Special Forces." Again, from Wikipedia

The Sturmabteilung (SA) English: Storm Detachment; or English: Stormtroopers) functioned as a paramilitary organization of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party). It played a key role in Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s. SA men were often called "brownshirts" for the colour of their uniforms (similar to Benito Mussolini's blackshirts).

Giuseppe Sinopoli's opera about Lou Salomé, to me, could only have been written by a European intellectual, and it needed a Venetian intellectual in particular to do it justice. It made me aware, once again, what a rich cultural texture is missing from the United States of America. Those great minds, all together, at the same time... loving each other, having sex with each other... operatic material... 

Lou Salomé played to packed houses here in Venice all last week, the week of the Giorno della Memoria. On January 27, 1945, the Russians liberated the survivors of Auschwitz. Later, the Americans, too, liberated more death camps. General Eisenhower and General Patton (remember when we used to have real generals?) ordered that as much as possible be documented so we would never forget what horrors human beings are capable of. Here is an especially poignant tale from Jewish Life entitled, 'It Was Skin and Bones: Soldiers Remember Auschwitz by Heather Robinson:

Anatoly Shapiro, 92, has never forgotten what he saw at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. That was the day Shapiro, who says he is the first Russian officer to enter the infamous concentration camp, led his battalion to liberate it.

In an interview Saturday in his apartment in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where he sits alongside his wife, Vita, his tall, thin form is upright and his eyes are clear as he describes, through a translator, the things he says he still sees in nightmares 60 years later.

"We saw German soldiers, and when we opened the gate, we saw one barrack, then the next, on and on for a hundred barracks," he recalled.

"When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn't even turn their heads, they stood like dead people."

"I told them, 'The Russian army liberates you!' They couldn't understand. Some few who could touched our arms and said, 'Is it true? Is it real?'"

I predict that Hollywood will soon get their hands on this woman, Lou Salomé, though if the film industry in Italy were clever, they would do it first. 

Never forget. Or they will soon be back. 

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Giuseppe Sinopoli was born on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1946 in Venice. He died, spectacularly, of a heart attack on April 20, 2001 at the age of 54 while on stage at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, conducting Verdi's Aida -- the same opera with which he made his debut in Venice in 1978