Sunday, October 6, 2013

Passion, Burning and Burnt, at Teatro Malibran and Elsewhere

Outside Teatro Malibran after the opening performance of Aspern
I can't pretend to write a musical review of Salvatore Sciarrino's Aspern, which I was recently lucky enough to see at Teatro Malibran, because I can't pretend to know anything about music. I can't play it and I don't know how to I read it, and while the latter incapacity rarely seems to stop book reviewers that's hardy a crew I'd like to emulate. The best I can do is offer some impressions and background, in case anyone might be interested in catching the final performances of Aspern on October 6, 8 or 10 (

Set in Venice, like the long Henry James novella (The Aspern Papers) upon which it's based, the opera would seem like a natural choice for La Fenice--except that it's the type of contemporary piece that many opera goers still love to dislike. First performed in Florence in 1978, it is mostly spoken, not sung, and it's not hard for me to imagine more than a few people dismissing much of the music performed by the minimal 6-piece La Fenice Orchestra as screechy and wheezy, consisting as it does of a main theme that's sparse and not obviously melodic: with a viola and violin making sounds that fans of Bach would probably consider ill-tempered, and harsh recurrent shuddering bursts from one of the two flautists more reminiscent of a reedy shakuhachi than any soft silvery magic of Mozart.  

In other words, it strikes me as an adventurous bit of programming at a time when plenty of opera companies are quite content to play things safe. Making it even more so is the fact that it's largely a production of the Università IUAV di Venezia, the arts, architecture, urban studies and performing arts college. Five of the production's seven performers on stage are from IUAV, as are all of the staging, sets, costumes and lighting.

Like the text on which it is based, the opera is a tale of passions at cross-purposes. James based his original tale on a true story recounted to him about a fervent American scholar of the Romantic poet Percy Shelley who, after finding out that an aged mistress of Lord Byron was still living with her spinster niece in Florence, schemed his way into lodging with them. He knew that Byron's old flame had a trunk full of invaluable letters from Byron and Shelley, and as she was ailing and unlikely to live much longer, the scholar planned to be on hand at her demise to "help" her dull dour niece deal with her estate. That is, help himself to the letters.

However, after the old lady passed on the scholar discovered that the spinster niece was not as clueless as he'd supposed: she had her own ideas. The primary one was that before she'd let him get his hands on the letters, he'd have to take her hand in marriage. The scholar fled.

In Sciarrino's opera, as in James's text, the narrator/protagonist has a monopoly on passion when the story begins. Both the old woman and her middle-aged niece look on life as spectators: the former oriented toward life (and lives) now long gone, the latter toward life she's never been free to live. And the music is true to this dim, diminished and even squelched sense of things. When we first hear the only singer in the cast, a soprano (whom I was happy to be see turn up, as I was afraid the whole thing would be recited), she seems barely able to get out any notes. Dressed in full early-19th-century finery, the soprano is the ghost of a passionate romantic past which can get no foothold in the pinched gloomy present time-frame of the story, as the narrator, the old lady and her spinster niece work out the financial terms of his lodging in the rambling empty palazzo of which the two women inhabit only a fraction. The narrator offers to turn the place's overgrown garden into one big flowerbed, not--as the two women fear--because he's looking for wages as a gardener, but simply "for his own pleasure."

"There is no pleasure here," the niece bitterly replies.

That's for sure. But slowly a certain pale passion is kindled (secretly) even in that cold household, and the soprano comes into her own. She has two beautiful arias, one in Italian, one in Venetian, the words of which are both perhaps written by Lorenzo Da Ponte (Mozart's old collaborator), from which Sciarrino and his co-librettist Giogio Marini borrow. (I don't have a copy of the libretto.) An ostensibly tepid evening out in the city of Venice by the narrator and the niece unfolds in thematic counterpoint to the drifting ghost-like soprano, who sings of burning passion and drama that seem far beyond any inhabitant of that run-down palazzo.

But when the old lady dies and the niece informs the narrator that she could only imagine entrusting the trove of letters to him "if he were family", the narrator finally becomes aware of another passion to which his own for the letters has blinded him.

He immediately refuses the proposition, but then returns the next morning, chastened, willing to take the plunge, only to find that the flames of passion have become quite literal and the niece has burned all the letters ("it took quite a long time, there so many").

I think it's a beautifully constructed opera, but not the thing for someone with Puccini in mind. I look forward to hearing the Aspern Suite that Sciarrino derived from this opera, and which is available on CD and for digital download. 

This Venetian-based drama of unrequited love and of letters burnt has a second real-life counterpart, according to John Julius Norwich, in the life of Henry James himself. It was in 1887 that James began writing The Aspern Papers, while staying with the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson in Florence. Woolson was herself a published novelist and over the next few years she and James became very close. In his book, Paradise of Cities about 19th-century ex-pats in Venice,  Norwich suggests that the never-married Woolson was more than a little in love with James, and that James knew this.

In 1894 a severely-depressed Woolson committed suicide by jumping out of the top floor window of Palazzo Semitecolo. This palazzo is on the Grand Canal, across from the Giglio vaporetto stop, but she leapt not into the canal, but to the pavement in the back of the building. James was too upset by her suicide to attend her funeral, but a few months later he arranged with Woolson's sister to help her sort through the many personal articles and documents left behind by the late writer in Venice. In later life, Norwich writes, James would recount how he had himself rowed well out into the lagoon to dispose of Woolson's entire wardrobe as she requested, only to find that the clothes would not sink, no matter how he pushed at them with oars, but always rose to the surface "like vast black baloons"

The difference between James, however, and the protagonist of his Aspern Papers, is that the fiercely private James was not in Venice to salvage the many letters he'd written to Woolson during the years of their very close friendship, but to destroy them. At least according to Norwich.

The small red palazzo was once the home of Rosalba Carriera and a long-term lodging place of Henry James
After seeing Aspern, I walked to the Grand Canal to take the vaporetto home past the palazzi involved in this real-life drama of unrequited love and lost letters. The Palazzo Semitecolo, and the little red one beside the Guggenheim Museum, famous as the home of the artist Rosalba Carriera, where James stayed for the weeks he helped put "in order" the private effects of Constance Fenimore Woolson.


  1. Dear Sig. Nonloso,

    I am a journalist and I work for a local newspaper in Venice. I would like to get in touch with you (for an interview) but it seems to be very difficult to find your email address on this blog! How can we do it without leaving my details on this page? Thank you! ;-))

    1. Now that you mention it, there's no email anywhere on the blog! But you can write me at

  2. Please post a link to the interview, when it's published!

    1. I'll have to think about that, Yvonne, as it would mean giving up my anonymity... Which Jen thinks I should do anyway.

  3. Dear nonloso,
    Your blog is a wonderful find! I am truly sorry to have missed Aspern, the opera, as I am much interested in everything concerning Henry James and Fenimore Woolson. Did you know that Colm Toibin wrote a very interesting novel about their relationship, called The Master? As did Emma Tennant. Her book is called Felony, but by far not as good as Toibin's.
    Hein Groen

    1. Thank you, Hein, for your kind comments, and for reminding me about those novels about James. A friend had told me about the Toibin after reading it, but I'd forgotten about the other. It sounds like I should look into the Toibin first, though. I wish you'd seen ASPERN also, as I'd love to hear someone else's opinion of it--especially someone who loves James and is interested in his relationship with Woolson!