An Opera Screams for Human Dignity – The New York Times
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Luigi Nono’s furiously political and prophetic “Intolleranza 1960” arrives at the Salzburg Festival.

SALZBURG, Austria — “Intolleranza 1960,” Luigi Nono’s furious work of music theater, is a scream for dignity in the face of oppression, racism toward migrants and merciless ecological disaster. And that was 60 years ago.
“Unfortunately things are still just as bad,” Nuria Schoenberg Nono, the composer’s widow and a daughter of the work’s dedicatee, Arnold Schoenberg, recently said with a weary laugh.
Indeed, decades after its premiere — at a time when floods have ravaged parts of Europe and the pandemic has been seized upon by xenophobic authoritarians around the world — the piece could just as easily be presented as “Intolleranza 2021.”
Its original title, which belies the work’s timelessness, will remain when it arrives at the Salzburg Festival here on Sunday. The production, directed by Jan Lauwers and conducted by the Nono veteran Ingo Metzmacher, may be the most terrifying, brash and cathartic operatic offering of the summer.
Nono — an idealistic Italian composer who lived from 1924 to 1990 and was a chief midcentury musical innovator alongside his Darmstadt School colleagues Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez — has been a fixture in Salzburg for three decades now. This is largely because of the efforts of Metzmacher and Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s artistic director; in 1993, they staged the Nono masterpiece “Prometeo,” which he considered a “tragedy of listening,” and other works of his have steadily followed.
“I regard Luigi Nono as one of the most important, significant, enriching figures in musical history,” Hinterhäuser said in an interview in his office, sitting under a portrait of the composer. “The figure of Nono is the artist who is not doing ‘l’art pour l’art.’ It is always related to our existence, to our life, to our human condition.”
“Intolleranza,” Nono’s first theatrical work, was written in response to political and social upheaval and premiered as part of the Venice Biennale in 1961. It has elements of opera yet rebels against the form — in part, Nuria Nono said, “because he was aware that he was writing in the country of Verdi and Puccini.”
Instead, the “azione scenica,” or “stage action,” as Nono called it, has more in common with the “epic theater” of Bertolt Brecht. It unfolds — with at times whiplash momentum — as a series of episodes about a migrant seeking work in Italy and finding political demonstrations, torture, concentration-camp cruelty and societal absurdities, along with a lifesaving human connection in the form of a female companion and, at last, a life-ending flood.
The scenes were inspired by current events, but Hinterhäuser said the sum of their parts transcended the particular situation of Italy circa 1960.
“We could also be talking about ‘Fidelio,’” he said. “Great artworks have something prophetic, and there is something prophetic that liberates this piece. I’m not interested in daily politics and art; I’m interested in politics and art. And while art is not free from political elements, it needs to have another level of reflection.”
Nono’s score is often, a bit unfairly, described as strident. The piece calls for a massive orchestra — in Salzburg, the Vienna Philharmonic, filling the pit of the Felsenreitschule theater and also flanking its stage with a battery of percussion. The cast is no smaller in scale: a full chorus, unaccompanied in the first and last scenes, and principal singers who perform at extremes of pitch and volume.
“It’s an opera about a collective,” Hinterhäuser said. “It has to do with muscles — the choir, the cast, the 26 dancers we have in this production — and the rising up of the masses.”
To reflect that, he brought in Lauwers, who directed Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” at Salzburg in 2018. In an interview, Lauwers described his work this summer as a continuation of his broader preoccupation over the past decade with theater focused almost entirely on people. This is why the set is virtually nonexistent here, and is mostly just projections on the towering stone backdrop of the Felsenreitschule, the word “INTOLLERANZA” written across its broad stage.
Within that space, a cast of nearly 100 singers and dancers is almost always in motion and onstage for the work’s 75-minute running time. The tenor Sean Panikkar, who plays the emigrant protagonist, said that Lauwers has conducted rehearsals with an improvisational style, “which allows for freedom and play,” before arriving at a more narrowed focus.
Lauwers’s approach has also involved conversations with the cast about how to comfortably portray, for example, a scene of prolonged torture that is nearly impossible to watch and hardly less difficult to perform.
“In the score, there are 22 minutes where Nono just says, ‘There is torture and screaming,’” Lauwers said. “At a certain point in rehearsals, some performers said: ‘We can’t do this. It’s emotionally too heavy for me.’ But we have to make it unbearable. This is the reality.”
Yet some cast members saw that scene as an opportunity to build on the libretto. “Musa Ngqungwana, one of the soloists, wanted to shout, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Lauwers said. “The others were like, ‘Wow, are we going there?’ But in the libretto, it says, ‘I hear the noise of the tortured people.’ So I said, ‘Yes, it’s your freedom there if you want to say that, and I as a director am not going to say you can’t.”
Compared with the improvisatory spirit of the staging, Metzmacher has been exacting with the score’s thorny rhythms and textures — which are foundational, he said, to the work’s emotional power. “The music is like thunder,” he added. “What interests me, though, is that Nono also has this hope and vision of love. I think it’s good that the music shocks, but on the other side, it has these incredible tender moments. It’s very suspended, delicate and ‘dolcissimo.’”
Panikkar described the score as initially almost impossible to comprehend; when he first looked at it, he counted the number of high C’s, each requiring a different sound, and “thought it was insane.”
“From the rhythmic structure, the brutal vocal passages and the physical demands of the staging,” he said, “it’s like a tornado that ravages everything in its path and then dissipates.”
The premiere of “Intolleranza” was less a tornado than a battlefield. Far-right “agitators,” as they were called by The New York Times, disrupted the performance with shouts, whistles and stench bombs — and were met with equally passionate boos and cries — until they were removed by police.
“They were also throwing down little pieces of paper,” Nuria Nono recalled. “I think I still actually have some of them.”
A few years ago, she said, she was giving a tour of the Nono archive in Venice. When she arrived at the models and recordings of the “Intolleranza” premiere, one of the visitors said: “I was there! My father” — a right-wing fascist — “paid us to make a lot of noise.”
But the show went on. And it ended, as the Times report noted, in “a triumph.” That’s because in “Intolleranza,” Nuria Nono said, “all the negative emotions and positive ones balance out.”
“My husband cared very much about people dying and being tortured,” she added. “But in spite of all the ugly things that are happening, there are human relationships, and there is hope. In all his works, there is hope.”
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