This year's edition of the Festival della Valle d'Itria in Martina Franca opened with Le braci (Embers), by Marco Tutino, a well-known Italian contemporary composer born in 1954. This was the work’s Italian première, as the world première was held in 2014 at the Armel Opera Festival in Budapest. This staging, in which director Leo Muscato suggestively exploited all the potentials of the libretto, will be also revived in November at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which co-produced it.

Roberto Scandiuzzi (Henrik) and Alfonso Antoniozzi (Konrad) © Paolo Conserva
Roberto Scandiuzzi (Henrik) and Alfonso Antoniozzi (Konrad)
© Paolo Conserva

Le braci, a one-act opera, deals with youthful friendship and idealism disillusioned by the passing of time and the fall of ideals. Tutino himself wrote the libretto after the 1942 novel by the Hungarian writer Sàndor Màrai, A gyertyák csonkig égnek, which means "Candles burn until the end". In Márai’s novel, two former friends – Henrik and Konrad – meet again in 1940, 41 years after their relationship had ended in a dramatic way. During a hunt in 1899, Henrik had the feeling that his friend for a moment took aim at him with his rifle, because he supposedly had an affair with his friend’s wife, Kristina; Henrik’s suspicion was strengthened when the following day Konrad vanished without leaving any trace. Henrik did not question his wife; they parted and never talked to each other again, until she died from a serious illness. He has been waiting for decades to ask Konrad whether he and Kristina had an affair and whether Konrad had meant to shoot him. 

The conversation between the two old men reveals that they spent their youth as officers in the fin-de-siècle Vienna. Beyond their private stories, we can see the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of a world order; the loss of traditional moral values is the ground where the betrayal of their friendship rooted.

From the first notes and through the entire work, Tutino’s score, with its disturbed harmonies, the tormented melodic lines of the singers, convey the restless turmoil of upsetting thoughts and melancholy, while underlining the different moments the characters live on stage; hence, waltzes and fast tempos accompanying the flashbacks alternate with more moderate and rarefied tones.

Director Leo Muscato’s evident aim was to make sure the audience did not miss anything of the plot. Thus, the set by Tiziano Santi shows a formerly luxurious room now fallen into ruins, surrounded on both sides by the wood where the hunting episode, which is the dramatic focus of the plot, occurred.

Davide Giusti (Young Konrad), Angela Nisi (Kristina) and Pavol Kuban (Young Henrik) © Paolo Conserva
Davide Giusti (Young Konrad), Angela Nisi (Kristina) and Pavol Kuban (Young Henrik)
© Paolo Conserva

The two old men reflect and talk about the past, while recurrent byplays show their young alter egos reviving the events they recall. These flashbacks take the audience back and forth in time, charging the story with tension and mystery until the unexpected, shocking denouement. Indeed, differently from the book, where Henrik’s questions remain unanswered, in Tutino’s work young Konrad actually kills young Heinrich. For the remnant 41 years, the protagonists were only dead men waiting for a last showdown to find finally peace. The final moral is condensed in the play’s epigraphic last line “Siamo solo fantasmi” (“We are not but ghosts”).

Death and regret for the past emerge as the main themes of the work, as well as a reflection on human frailty, an element that director Muscato is able to highlight in the staging. The two distinct periods, late 19th century and 1940, are treated in different ways, also in the costumes by Silvuia Aymonino and lighting by Franco Marchitella: in the former period, younger versions of the main characters are in black and white, like photo negatives, while the older men in the decayed dining room, are immersed in a fading yellowish light.

The periods of time are not completely separated, though, and the past is always penetrating the present. The score is elegiac and solemn, even mesmerising: Tutino employs - sometimes  explicitly quoting famous pieces - various musical languages and different styles to stress the contrasts between the timelines. That contrast is also reflected in Muscato’s direction.

Both the principal singers for this performance, Roberto Scandiuzzi singing with the bass role of the older Henrik and Alfonso Antoniozzi singing the bass-baritone role of the older Konrad, fully expressed the melancholy of the libretto.

Scandiuzzi and Antoniozzi were imposing, as they poured into their characters all the toughness and gravity the roles require. The two showed a solid sense of drama and a full and sound adhesion to the narrative, making their characters live both physically and vocally.

The younger men were very precisely sung by baritone Pavol Kuban and tenor Davide Giusti. The two female characters were also well-balanced: the old Nini, Henrik's housekeeper, a faithful witness of the life long lasting drama, was sung with warm and devoted commitment by contralto Romina Tomasoni, and Kristina, who was expressively played by soprano Angela Nisi.

In the pit, young Francesco Cilluffo, supported by an excellent Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, conducted with concentration and determination, perfectly at ease and capable of enhancing every detail of the score.