Holding Up a Mirror to the World

Bruno Maderna
Bruno Maderna

Bruno Maderna’s Satyricon

Since 2017, the Salzburg Easter Festival has introduced a second scenic production alongside the ‘main opera’ in the Großes Festspielhaus, offering a perspective on the music theatre scene of our own time. This new chamber opera series enjoyed a successful start last year with Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, and will continue in 2018 with the one-act opera Satyricon by the Italian conductor and avant-garde composer Bruno Maderna (1920–1973). The venue is now the republic in the heart of the old town, whose rooms are especially suited to the occasion and offer an intimate atmosphere in which the audience can experience the stage action up close.

Satyricon takes us into a dazzling world of weary luxury in the house of the former slave and catamite Trimalchio, who in Maderna’s opera invites seven guests to a banquet. There is no linear plot, and instead the guests participate in a gaudy kaleidoscope of autocratic decadence that is both erotic and destructive; nor do they shy away from indulging in mutual abasement. We see here a society of masters and underlings whose class status seems to be a result of mere circumstance and could change again at any time. Trimalchio has come into money thanks to a rich inheritance, and he plays the instrument of his new power like a virtuoso. He engages in ruthless intrigues, holding sway over his guests until he ultimately even stages his own burial.

Bruno Maderna wrote his opera in 1973, taking his subject matter from the Cena Trimalchionis in the ancient fragmentary novel Satyricon by Petronius (ca 60 AD). Petronius lived happily as a poet, philosopher and an expert in fine living at the court of the Emperor Nero, always satisfying the tastes of his master, though offering a commentary that is tinged with the subtlest of irony. ‘I believe that there is hardly any better reflection of our own society than Petronius’s description of Roman decadence’, said Bruno Maderna in explanation of his interest in the novel. Maderna composed his music theatre work four years after the famous film version by Federico Fellini. Maderna depicts all the stations of this ancient banquet, whose boozing and gorging are juxtaposed with all kinds of frivolous amusements so that the guests can laugh at and with each other. The result is a delectable series of events. Maderna structured his musical collage in a correspondingly open fashion, leaving the director the freedom to determine the order in which things happen.

The musical material of this collage had its origins in a student workshop held by Maderna together with the American opera director Ian Strasfogel in 1971. Maderna’s composition holds up a mirror to his own times, in a manner both joyous and edgy. His characters chatter away in five different languages, blithely and fatalistically teetering on the brink of their own dignity.

Bruno Maderna was a musical Wunderkind who was already conducting major Italian orchestras at the age of seven. Over the course of his composing career, he turned to very different types of music – prompted not least by his training as a conductor and composer in Milan and Venice, and by his later close contact with the musical avant-garde in Darmstadt where he worked for many years as a lecturer and conductor. Maderna’s friendship with Luigi Nono and Pierre Boulez encouraged him to experiment, and together with Boulez he directed the International Chamber Ensemble Darmstadt from 1961 to 1966, which gave new impetus to the chamber music scene. Bruno Maderna’s works for music theatre never correspond to what one might normally call an ‘opera’. His pieces are always characterised by an open form that is a result of different working processes and that in itself invites experimentation.

In Satyricon, it is Maderna’s love of musical quotation that comes most to the fore. In his score, Maderna proves that he can express himself using all the styles and trends of music history, especially in his use of famous operatic quotations from Puccini to Verdi, and from Gluck to the Valhalla motif from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. But nor are jazz elements or the chanson lacking in Maderna’s eclectic composition.

In the German-speaking world, Maderna’s final works for music theatre have been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. The social criticism inherent in Petronius’s novel and the diverse, entertaining commentary offered by Maderna’s composition provide a backdrop suitable for a variety of scenic interpretations. The director Georg Schmiedleitner, the conductor Peter Tilling and their artistic team have now taken on this experiment and are developing a ‘Salzburg version’ of their own for the Easter Festival. It is a co-production with the Semperoper Dresden, where it will also be shown next season.

Juliane Schunke
Translation: Chris Walton