Born in 1920 to a Venetian bandmaster, Bruno Maderna became famous during his formative years as a violin prodigy and was told by his grandfather that he could gravitate to the mafia later in life and God would still look kindly on one who played the violin so wonderfully. As Maderna later became closely associated with the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, which have been spoofed in musicological discourse as the militant wing of the Euro-serialist tradition, the story carries a certain irony.

Klangforum Wien © Lukas Beck
Klangforum Wien
© Lukas Beck

Just as Hans Werner Henze, citing among other things the suffocating hegemony of the Darmstadt aesthetic, abandoned Germany for Italy, Maderna left Italy in 1963 to take up residency in Darmstadt and German citizenship. There the parallels end, for Maderna arrived in Darmstadt at a time when Cagean experimentalism was a far greater influence on European serialist thought than the post-Webern legacy commonly misrepresented as imposing doctrinal discipline on all conceivable compositional parameters. Whether it is due to this or the slipperiest of versatile idioms, his output has largely fallen through the historiographical cracks except for a small number of works including the late opera of sorts Satyricon, which works well both as a staged piece and in concert.

The libretto is written in a mishmash of four languages and loosely based on the “Trimalchio’s dinner” chapters of the Latin original, which Maderna treats with the anti-bourgeois disdain of a 1970s leftist. Trimalchio is a wealthy Roman whose sybaritic lifestyle and vulgar tastes are compounded by his stupidity and the broader social and cultural decay he represents, and there is not much to the narrative – hence the open form of the opera’s sixteen episodes, which Maderna leaves performers to order – beyond exposing the social status of which this character is so proud as an absurd and detestable construct. In this sense Satyricon has much in common with Kagel’s Staatstheater and Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, though Maderna’s satire is more humourous. Trimalchio’s obsequious tendencies and pretensions to culture are undercut at every turn in the score through parodistic musical quotation, aligned in crude contrapuntal style with raucous circus music, of composers ranging from Monteverdi and Gluck through to Wagner and Puccini.

The piece calls for larger-than-life performances served up with honking slices of ham, and inhibitions were abandoned only up to a point in this performance. At the same time Maderna consciously writes for operatic voices and is not as forgiving on those who can’t hold a tune as, say, Weill – and Nigel Robson, who hollered and barked his way through Trimalchio, certainly demonstrated that. Singing in more idiomatic English than his British colleague, Austrian tenor Oliver Ringelhahn sang Habinnas (a guest of Trimalchio) with knowingly cultivated, detached tone, but the text of his big number, “La matrona di Efeso”, was dully characterized and didn’t take flight as a dramatic monologue. Janina Baechle, as Trimalchio’s ironically named wife Fortunata, was the most engaging stage presence of the three main singers and put in a performance filled with inflections ranging from Weimar cabaret to Ella Fitzgerald – which would have been fine were it not xeroxed in its entirety, down to the tiniest stylistic details of American diction, from Débria Brown’s performance on the radio broadcast conducted by Maderna himself. I listened to that a couple of days before this concert and was struck here only by a colossal failure of imagination.

The Klangforum Wien is an ensemble similarly worthy of imitation and were here as outstanding as always. Conductor Emilio Pomarico drew us into Maderna’s satirical world in a manner that largely compensated for the singing, deftly realizing musical mockery and triviality as the springboard for a highly articulate creative practice that includes more extended compositional techniques than it lets on. With a score that could easily be allowed to descend into the garishness of a Trimalchian dinner party, that is no small feat.