As anybody with a mere smattering of the past knows, the ancient world is shot through with rich myths and legends. Yet, intriguingly, much of it is still relevant today. For a start, where does the idea come from that red roses are inextricably linked to romantic love? As the blood of Adonis, one of the most beautiful creatures ever to walk on earth, seeps into the ground after the hero has been gored by a wild boar, white roses are stained crimson. The powerful story of Venus and Adonis, explored in literature from Ovid to Shakespeare and beyond, and first exploited musically through John Blow’s early English opera, is at the heart of Salvatore Sciarrino’s latest operatic work, Venere e Adone, premiered at Staatsoper Hamburg.

Layla Claire (Venere) and ensemble
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Sciarrino has also drawn inspiration from one of Watteau’s paintings, The Embarkation for Cythera, which despite its title can be seen both as an arrival but also as a departure. Moments of happiness on the island (of love or death?) are therefore destined to be short-lived, as is the ill-fated relationship between a goddess and a mortal. Sciarrino cautions his audiences that ambivalence rather than certainty underlies his reading of this mythological situation. The narrative twist that his libretto brings to the story is that the boar, relegated elsewhere to inconsequence, is given elevated status in the character of Il Mostro (the monster in all of us?). He is both the agent of Adonis’ downfall, manipulated by the deities who wish to punish the lovers for their effrontery, but also a philosophical being, wreathed from start to finish in doubts about self-identity.

Layla Claire (Venere)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Sciarrino believes in stripping away all the trappings of big dramatic opera, even to the extent of reducing vocal and instrumental lines to their barest minimum. For him, sounds always emerge from moments of silence before returning to it, thus mimicking the perennial cycle of life and death. Working with a modest-sized orchestra, Kent Nagano maintained clarity and precision throughout, ensuring that the emotional essence of each instrumental colouring was suitably conveyed. Bass lines frequently sounded like groans from subterranean depths, swelling and then fading, with a cutting edge from sharp upper strings and anguish provided by metallic percussion. Very occasionally a sense of space would ensue from the matching of violins in their highest register with the lowest notes of a trombone, or a floating sensation achieved with delicate flutter-tonguing in flutes and trumpet. However, all this minimalism requires concentrated listening: Sciarrino eschews harmony and rhythms, declassifying such features as mere “adhesive”.

Randall Scotting (Adone)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Vocally, this opera represents a considerable challenge. The characters are rarely supported by any accompaniment, which is tantamount to walking long distances on a high wire. They form part of a process of timbral exploration, involving messa di voce, glissandos, portamenti and incantatory reiterations, with only the briefest of melismas. Yet the pitches are all very distinctive, stretching from countertenor to bass, with an unusual pairing of soprano and baritone singing parallel in octaves as a representation of Fama, the Roman goddess of Rumour or Fame. Their combined function is to drive forward the narrative but also to provide commentary on the action, as happens equally with the eight chorus members.

By far the biggest role is that of Il Mostro, present initially as a disembodied voice and semi-amplified, here taken by the deeply sonorous bass-baritone of Evan Hughes. Only in his confrontation with Adonis in the hunting scene does he first manifest himself. As Cupid’s arrow (in stroboscopic form) hits home, Il Mostro is himself wounded but then turns his amorous attention to the figure he mortally wounds, namely Adonis. In a final twist, Sciarrino has the beast metamorphose into the young hero who, in turn, becomes the boar. 

Randall Scotting (Adone) and Layla Claire (Venere)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Both the American countertenor Randall Scotting as Adonis and the Canadian mezzo Layla Claire as Venus were well matched. In their central love scene they signalled appropriate rapture, vying for their respective top notes. As Cupid, the soprano of Kady Evanyshyn made her mark, equipped with a white cane and sunglasses to underline the proverbial blindness of love.

Georges Delnon was responsible for the staging. There was an inescapable feeling of stasis as the opera progressed, with little dramatic uplift or moments of visual interest to contrast with the heavy symbolism. The sets, apart from projections of opening clouds and a later snowstorm to herald the renewed appearance of Venus, were largely bare.

Kady Evanyshyn (Amore) and Matthias Klink (Marte)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

In the Epilogue, Sciarrino brings back all his characters and raises the question of whether the ultimate triumph belongs to Love or to Death, leaving the audience to provide its own resolution of the matter, in much the same way that Bertolt Brecht ends one of his own plays with the neat conceit, “Indeed it is a curious way of coping: To close the play, leaving the issue open.”