Just a few years after the premiere of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, Pierre Boulez blithely declared that opera theatres “should be blown up”. While intentionally provocative, his stance originated from the sense of upheaval that prompted different responses from different composers throughout the 1960s – Nono’s stage work being one of them. Although not as openly hostile as Boulez’s snarky remark, Intolleranza 1960 tests the limits of operatic performance, stretching the very idea of what can happen inside a theatre, of what can be staged and how. Each new production of the work must come to terms with the fact that its content, as well as its form, necessarily make any opera theatre feel like a limiting setting for something so determinedly outward-oriented. In order to serve its full purpose, Intolleranza 1960 naturally requires unusual, alternative staging solutions.

Sean Pannikkar, Deniz Uzun and chorus
© Barbara Braun

Marking the beginning of Susanne Moser and Philip Bröking’s artistic direction after Barrie Kosky’s departure, Komische Oper Berlin’s new production of Intolleranza 1960 seems to have taken these matters to heart, redefining as it does the space of the stage as we know it. It could almost seem like a programmatic statement, having the season open in a reassembled theatre where the parterre and orchestra pit are turned into the main stage, musicians and conductor are placed in the highest gallery, and the audience sits in the middle, surrounding the stage as if in an amphitheatre. Yet such an arrangement wasn’t just meant to be an act of defiance, but rather a logical answer to the problems posed by the work. By positioning the public between the stage and the orchestra, director Marco Štorman and conductor Gabriel Feltz agreed that they would more readily achieve the effect of direct involvement that Nono strove towards, questioning the role of the audience as a mere group of spectators.

Sean Pannikar, Gloria Rehm
© Barbara Braun

With so much space available, Štorman envisioned a scenery which he called at once sensual and poetic but also extreme and unliveable. A desert, frozen land covers both stage and parterre, constituting the all-white setting where the Migrant, dressed in brown, stands out against continuing acts of discrimination and brutal repression. Around him move the other characters and the chorus, all variously wearing white, brown or black. The colour symbolism is elementary, but it promptly identifies the forces in action in a staging which steers clear of any explicit, graphic depiction of violence. Yet it would be misleading to associate each colour with a specific, definite side of the conflict; instead, Štorman chose to maintain a degree of ambiguity which rescued the production from pedantry. This was further corroborated by the introduction of an additional spoken role, not included in Nono’s original text and named the “Angel of History”, who offered detached comments on the unfolding events – their words encouraging the audience not just to think critically, but to take action. The staging then proceeded on two levels: as we followed the Migrant on his journey, itself represented by the building of a frail ship out of wooden debris, we also heard its external commentary.

Intolleranza 1960
© Barbara Braun

Actually conceived as a solution to bypass the limited space of the theatre’s orchestra pit, the relocation of the musicians to the highest gallery threatened to tip the dynamic balance that we usually expect in a music performance. After all, Nono’s score is itself a delicate matter, its twelve percussionists risking drowning out the rest. The peculiar acoustics inevitably gave a looming quality to the music, which often came rumbling and roaring from above. Such an overwhelming effect deliberately conveyed the horror of the events, leaving the public with a sense of dread. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Feltz’s interpretation lacked nuance; instead, he was as attentive to Nono’s refined orchestral and harmonic textures as mindful of the work’s unique dramatic pace. The gusts of sound never degenerated into confusion or disarray, always preserving a relentless lucidity.

Sean Panikkar
© Barbara Braun

Standing at the centre of the plot and hardly ever leaving the stage, the role of the Migrant requires solid acting skills and a ductile voice. American tenor Sean Panikkar proved he has both, which allowed him to portray a tormented yet uncompromising main character. Panikkar exhibited impressive vocal agility by constantly jumping between registers, ranging from the low to falsetto. Alternating by his side as his Companion and a Woman respectively, Gloria Rehm and Deniz Uzun both gave remarkable performances – the former thanks to a razor-sharp soprano, the latter with her rich, imperious alto. One more uncanny yet hypnotic figure was Ilse Ritter’s Angel of History, whose sole presence on stage commanded attention. But the picture wouldn’t be complete without the theatre’s chorus, whose precision and intensity paid great homage to Nono’s fascinating vocal harmonies.