From the programme booklet
A Cosmos of Musical Theatre
Remarks on Giorgio Battistelli by Max Nyffeler
Giorgio Battistelli, who just turned 70, is one of the most prolific composers in the field of musical theatre; his inventiveness seems infinite. His website currently lists 30 works, and even their titles reveal an unusual diversity of subjects and forms. The spectrum ranges from multi-media smaller forms to semi-staged concerts to evening-length operas with large casts, from fleet satire to profound musical drama. Battistelli finds his subjects in literature from antiquity to the present, in film and theatre, and he always adds some of his own overflowing imagination, ensuring additional colour or a surprising spin – the adjective “extravagant” is not exaggerated when describing his wealth of ideas. Illustrating this point, suffice it to mention several highlights of Battistelli’s diverse oeuvre, in chronological order:
KEPLERS TRAUM [1990, Linz] for actor, two singers and ensemble is a fantastical fairy-tale with an experimental character, also involving a flutist in the stage action. Battistelli’s libretto is based on a dream written down by Johannes Kepler, in which he imagines what life might be like on the far side of the moon.
CHANSON DE GESTE [1990, Milan] for harp, percussion, pre-recorded tape and two videos, produced by Studio Azurro in Milan, describes the fight between Hector and Achilles. The title refers to the medieval genre of sung representations of combat between knights. The two performers react to the videos, following a score that leaves room for improvisation. Battistelli was interested here in the interaction between non-illustrative music and video.
In the experimental first version of TEOREMA [1990, Munich], composed for mute actors, a narrator and ensemble, an angel appears. It is not a saviour, but an angel of destruction, for it ruins the bourgeois family and exposes its mendacious philosophy of life.
PROVA D’ORCHESTRA ]1995, Strasbourg], based on the eponymous film by Federico Fellini, is a wicked musical-theatre parable on the dysfunctional structure of authority between conductor and orchestra and, more generally speaking, a society which is hopelessly divided; the conflicts end in catastrophe. With his subtitle, “Sei scene musicali di fine secolo” [“Seven scenes from the end of the century”, but also “from the end of the world” or “from the end of time”], Battistelli evokes apocalyptic associations.
In IMPRESSIONS D’AFRIQUE [2000, Florence] for nine actors, two mimes, male chorus, orchestra and sampler, Battistelli gives free reign to his musical and theatrical imagination. The piece is based on the eponymous book by the former avant-gardist Raymond Roussel about an imaginary Africa. Further texts were taken from works by Dickens, Morgenstern, Rabelais, Tasso and Umberto Saba. One of the speaking roles is Jules Verne.
Musical-like light-heartedness mixed with a dash of surreal comedy, including fearful fantasies, are at the heart of THE FASHION [2007, Düsseldorf] for twelve singing roles and dancers, also including hairdressers, makeup artists and at least seven models. The piece opens with banal small talk at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten: “Good morning” – “Good morning” – “What’s he so happy about?” – He’s in love.” – “Oh dear!” Then the fashion designer from Milan arrives to present her new collection with fish motifs in the ballroom, a star male model fails to arrive, and the chamber maid Meli makes an appearance, jumping in at the last moment as a male model and being transformed into Mel. The hotel lift also sings; it is a countertenor.
MIRACOLO A MILANO [2007, Reggio Emilia], adapted from a story by Cesare Zavattini and the eponymous film by Vittorio De Sica, observes the clash of cultures in a megacity. Underneath the slum of the metropolis, oil is discovered; the government wants to enforce the interests of the oil corporation, but then two angels appear, making the poor people’s wishes come true: here a coat or a television set, there a refrigerator, and suddenly all the houses are full of them. When the police starts to arrive, the inhabitants disappear into heaven, aided by the angels. A bit of utopia in the life of the underdogs, told as a modern fairy-tale.
DIVORZIO ALL’ITALIANA [2008, Nancy]: inspired by the eponymous film by Pietro Germi – its English title was “Divorce Italian Style” – this “azione musicale” about the conflict between two noble families is an ironic reckoning with the petrified customs of 1950s Sicily; Battistelli ensures that the situation is vastly exaggerated, even on the conceptual level, by casting even the female leading roles exclusively with male singers – with the exception of Angela, the trophy wife around whom the story evolves.
IL MEDICO DEI PAZZI [The Doctor for the Insane, 2014, Nancy], an “azione musicale napoletana” based on the eponymous comedy by Eduardo Scarpetta, draws a connection between the ecstatic dances in Naples of former times to the craziness of our own times.
Mysterious and Miraculous
At first glance, some of the stories told in Battistelli’s cosmos of musical theatre do not necessarily appear likely candidates for the stage. However, he has mastered the art of turning any tale into a work that captures the ear and eye and sets the mind in motion, whether through an unusual cast, the montage of heterogeneous materials or the addition of foreign elements which bring mysterious or comical accents to the pieces – surreal incidents that often owe their existence to a creative whim of the composer. Beyond the purely anecdotal, they offer commentary on the subject by way of alienation, or become part of the action themselves. Examples include the absurd idea of the singing elevator in THE FASHION, death as a singing doppelganger of the protagonist in DER HERBST DES PATRIARCHEN [based on Gabriel García Márquez], the flute player in KEPLERS TRAUM, who acts as the shadow of the narrating demon on stage, or the angels as messengers of happiness in MIRACOLO A MILANO.
Such moments mark the sudden incursion of the miraculous into the world as it appears to us. “I strongly believe that our reality is only a transient one, one of many in which we move. Surely, there are others,” says Battistelli. “I like the idea of these messengers who put us in touch with other, spiritual dimensions. Perhaps for some, these thoughts are their faith, for others something more akin to meditation of philosophy. I think that faith is a dimension of the utmost importance today.”
The Polyphony of Modernism
Giorgio Battistelli is convinced of the topicality and power of musical theatre. He believes that this genre has the ability to portray today’s reality in all its inscrutability through artistic means, even if this is only achieved partially. The great inquietude of our present times, according to Battistelli, is due to our inability to reconcile the many different realities we experience. Instead, we have created chaos, making it impossible to achieve harmony between the different realities. Today’s artists must find their way within these different realities.
To Battistelli, the concept of modernism is therefore a polyphony. Its structure is not monodic, i.e. one-dimensional, but shaped by many factors pulling together and superimposing one another. He is sharply critical of eclecticism, however, and the term post-modernism means nothing to him. The artist’s task, he says, is to account for the reality we live in, and he concludes: “There is not only one manner, but many manners of musical thought. Just as there are many ways to view our world.”
For example from the moon. In the above-mentioned chamber opera KEPLERS TRAUM, the narrative refers to a text by the astronomer Johannes Kepler, in which he imagines a journey to the moon on which he observes the earth from that vantage point and explores the far side of the moon. Kepler wrote this story in 1609, entitling it “Somnium, or the Dream of the Moon”. He added numerous fantastical details to the facts ascertained by science at the time; the result reads like a report on an expedition from one of the colonial empires then recently discovered, with descriptions of the soil, climate and creatures found there. What sounds curious from today’s perspective constituted a leap into the void, the uncertain, in Kepler’s time. Observing the earth from afar, choosing the moon as one’s base for this and packaging the whole thing as a fantastical vision: at the time, this must have seemed downright revolutionary. To Battistelli, it was a gift: his theatrical imagination was fired up immediately. He turned it into a four-person piece with characters veering between medieval superstition and incipient enlightenment. Magic and science, dream and reality blend together – an intermediate realm where artistic fantasies are born.
Using KEPLERS TRAUM as an example, Battistelli explains what fascinates him about a subject. The story alone is not the most intriguing element. If it enables him to leap into another dimension, however – whether musical, intellectual, theatrical – and invites new images or dance, he is immediately enthusiastic. It must be flexible, pointing beyond itself and existing reality.
Battistelli and Italian Traditions
Despite all extravagances, Battistelli’s ideas, odd as they may occasionally seem, are invariably and solidly grounded; with the instinct of a life-affirming practitioner, he manages to shape the core of each story in a specific manner, implementing in it ways that are effective on stage. A clear narration is essential to him in these efforts, which also enables the more experimental forms to enter into dialogue with the audience. A theoretical overarching concept requiring study, a negative aesthetic or any kind of intellectual sophistry are far from his mind. His works are meant to find their audience through direct sensual perception – this, however, by no means excludes sonic or conceptual complexity.
Doubtlessly, this has to do with Battistelli’s Italian provenance. Born in Albano near Rome in 1953, he studied piano and composition at the conservatory in L’Aquila; at the age of 21, he was a co-founder of the experimental group “Edgar Varèse” and a member of the group “Beat 72” in Rome. Composers such as Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono and Hans Werner Henze influenced him profoundly.
In the early 1990s, the latter invited him to take on the directorship of the Cantiere d’arte, the “artistic construction site” in Montepulciano, which meant an important step in his artistic development. He learned to break out of the isolated existence of the author, to view a composer’s work within a greater context. Today, he is a sought-after programmer at Italian opera houses and symphony orchestras.
With his practice-oriented working method, Battistelli represents a type of composer presumably found more often in his Italian homeland than north of the Alps. To him, music was never a result of reflecting on the material. That is why he never had to search for an exit strategy from a manner of composing that was weighed down by theory, whether this led to musical settings of political creeds or the expressing of subjective states of mind. Demonstrating rectitude through moral pleas was never his thing anyway. His point of departure was always a critical experience of the world, a distanced observation of inner and outer realities, as manifested in the present, but also in the great works of art of the past. Therein, he resembles Luigi Nono, who became vehemently opposed to theoretical composing in his late creative phase, declaring that the foundation of artistic work was not a template, whether in composition theory or in philosophy, that had to be followed, but living reality, which needed to be analysed. This enables the intellectual flights of fancy which are characteristic of Nono’s late works and, in a very different way, of Battistelli’s fantastical inventions.
Perhaps this inductive method is imbued with a bit of the ancient heritage of the Italian renaissance: the observing experimentation of the great discoverers and inventors, who were not Faustian men of books, but natural scientists, inventors, artists and visionaries, all wrapped into one.
This grounding in reality is the soil from which Battistelli’s musical theatre grows. In the form of the “spettacolo”, an expressive play staged for everyman, it portrays life in all its facets. Deeds, fates and dreams of humankind are shown in concrete detail and connected with all of history’s rich trove of experience.
A perfect example for this method of portrayal, which remains strictly in the present, yet also destroys the boundaries of the present, is the composition EXPERIMENTUM MUNDI, which is unique in every way. The 1981 work for one actor, five female voices, sixteen artisans and a percussionist can be considered a prototype for Battistelli’s entire theatrical output, while also demonstrating clearly his deep roots in Italian culture.
Everything we find on stage in his later pieces is abundantly present here: realism – in this case, hyper-realism – in its representation, an apparently impossible combination of totally heterogeneous elements, and a simultaneity of collective remembrance and ecstatic experiencing of the present – a celebration of human creativity in which retrospective and utopian outlook balance each other out.
The protagonists of this “opera di musica immaginistica” are artisans from Battistelli’s home village, Albano Laziale: the pasta maker, cobbler, bricklayer, toolmaker, stonemason, carpenter, cooper, knife grinder… They and all the others do on stage exactly what they also do at home, in real life. Or did in real life. For many of these artisanal capabilities, which once powered social advancement, are doomed to oblivion today, in our era of robots and mass production. Their apotheosis on the stage, however, is fuelled by a narrator who recites the description of their activities and tools from Diderot’s “Encyclopédie”, to the complex polyphony or working noises. Depending on the noise level, occasionally five women whisper, murmur or occasionally scream male and female first names into this symphony of noise. They sound like magical incantations. A percussionist amplifies the working noises; Battistelli conducts. The group has travelled the entire world with the piece, and several of the artisan-performers are now represented by a second generation.
This “spettacolo” brings the Italian art of living to the stage in its purest form, winning every audience’s heart. The spirit continues during the post-premiere parties, when the artisans offer guests wine, ham and cheese from their own production, with Giorgio Battistelli, the “cittadino” from Albano Laziale, in the thick of it all. This scene was taken even one step further after the performance at the Almeida Theatre in London in 1996, when the stone setter Antonio Innocenzi recited several verses from Dante’s “Commedia” by heart during the post-premiere festivities. More italianità cannot be imagined.
The motif of memory runs through Battistelli’s entire oeuvre. It also shows in his historical consciousness and has influenced his understanding of tradition. In a 1997 article for the Darmstadt Theatre, he wrote a piece entitled “Remarks on the Dramaturgy of Eye and Ear”: “The deep connection with our cultural heritage from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Mozart to Rossini, from Rossini to Wagner, from Wagner to Strauss, from Strauss to Berg, allows us to be creative, to understand the inner power of this tradition and to implement our own ideas and imagination. This productive examination enables us to try out new possible forms of listening and seeing.”
Tradition as the motor for exploring new forms of perception and realities. For Battistelli, this includes external and fantastical realities, but also internal ones. For his explorations of the human psyche, he likes to mobilize full orchestral forces, also employing large amounts of percussion, some of his favourite instruments. Thus in DER HERBST DES PATRIARCHEN, where the pitiful ego of the vulgar ruler is illuminated by a dangerously oscillating music that seems to capture even the last details like an x-ray. Or in RICHARD III, the evening-length “drama musicale” based on Shakespeare: here, the music paints a horrifying portrait of the sick violent criminal on the royal throne. In both works, memory, that ungovernable inner force, relentlessly confronts the power-addicted figures, chained to the present as they are, with their own transience; the patriarch obsessively thumbs his little aide-memoire notes, while King Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims before his death.
In the orchestral piece “Afterthought” of 2005, Battistelli remembered the stage work RICHARD III, which was premiered the year before. He combined the memory of the theatrical debaucher with a view of the real horrors of the present, the bomb attacks in London which were then current. The interweaving of the time levels generated a totally new piece, in which the horror of RICHARD III was musically revived in an altered form.
In the stage work AUF DEN MARMORKLIPPEN [subtitle: “Musical Visions based on the novel by Ernst Jünger”], first performed in Mannheim in 2002, the narrator appears as the “Voice of Memory”. He anchors the action in the past, emphasizing the reflective character of the work. It is a protocol of the inevitable fall of a civilization which has become rather too comfortable in its nature-friendly idyll, and has no means of defending itself against the perfidious undermining and finally destruction wrought by the troops of a violent aggressor. “The very meekest cannot be at peace if his ill neighbour will not let him rest”: this insight from Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” could be the motto of this parable of power politics – which has acquired an oppressive topicality today, in the second year of the Ukraine War.
Through such ciphers of evil – in individual form in the PATRIARCH and RICHARD III, and in political shape in Jünger’s tale – Battistelli shines a light into the dark depths of the human psyche, and linking them with the motif of memory proves an apt device. Here, his capabilities in the field of musical drama are demonstrated with unexpected clarity. Cooly calculating and keeping a superior distance from his subject, yet employing a rich panoply of orchestral and sonic forces and a consequence reminiscent of ancient Greek theatre, he lets his stories end in catastrophes. His aspiration – that drama must unfold in music – is here implemented in full.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag