The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino: Music Theatre Wales

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 18 October 2013

Music – Salvatore Sciarrino
Libretto – Salvatore Sciarrino after C.A. Cigognini and C. Le Jeune

Director – Michael McCarthy
Conductor – Michael Rafferty
Designer – Simon Banham
Lighting – Ace McCarron

Cast – Amanda Forbes / William Towers / Michael Bennett / George Humphreys


The music of Salvatore Sciarrino hovers, flutters and breathes at the edge of silence, on the cusp of darkness and light. It has the hushed, colouristic intensity of a timeless dawn or twilight; held but not frozen; distant, yet intimately compelling. Speaking of silence – the ‘zero-sound’ which ‘also contains all sounds’ – the composer once asked, ‘how does one decide the frontier, the point of passage?’ And he offered a clue: ‘in my music … the sounds preserve traces of the silence from which they come and into which they return, a silence which itself is an infinite rumbling of microscopic sonorities.’ Sciarrino has spent many decades exploring those sonorities in exquisite depth and detail, and his music invites us to do nothing less than re-imagine the nature of expression itself.

Sciarrino’s sounds inhabit a netherworld between pitched notes and unpitched ‘noises’, all precisely conceived and meticulously notated; indeed, David Metzer has described him as a ‘master calligrapher of quiet’. Low dynamics inscribe the most vivid of articulative ranges. The whispers and whistlings of flute and muted trumpet, the unearthly, high harmonics of bowed strings and the percussive clacks and clicks of mechanical keys and tongued reed instruments create labyrinths in Sciarrino’s music as ethereal, yet physically and aesthetically charged, as any story by Jorge Luis Borges. Each player forms part of a web, if you will, of natural and artificial sounds, continually trembling the surface and re-weaving the steel-strong, gossamer structure that typically lies beneath.

Traditional, full operatic singing would, of course, shatter such delicately quiet filigree, but Sciarrino’s voices rather arise from and in tandem with his instrumental music, utilising a complementary, heightened style which also combines the natural and the artificial. Vocal phrases are pushed out; forcefully appearing from ‘nothing’, with crescendi that build and then veer between ppp and piano before falling back through short, fast repeated patterns and sighing glissandi that increase the intensity rather than dispel it. The result is a dramatic tapestry of paradoxically urgent stillness and relaxed tension that is breathtaking to experience – quite literally so, as the audience breathes with the music passed back and forth between singers and musicians from breath to breath as it were in close but distant contact.

The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino
William Towers (Guest)
Amanda Forbes (Duchess)
photo: Clive Barda

In The Killing Flower (1996-8)*, as in Sciarrino’s other concert and stage works, touch and timbre are everything. Indeed, in their richly suggestive layers, his sounds lend themselves ideally to his singular theatrical vision; a vision which was impeccably realised by Music Theatre Wales in this stunningly beautiful, first ever production of the opera – or of any opera by Sciarrino – in the UK. Sciarrino’s softly sempiternal music is employed with real theatrical imperative in this extraordinary piece, within a quintessential operatic frame concerning love, betrayal, jealousy, rage and murder. Only appearing to utilise a conventional narrative development, the characters are rather propelled through their inner energy and external impulses towards the inevitable tragic denouement. Sciarrino’s story is based on that of Gesualdo, his brilliant Italian Renaissance precursor, who famously murdered his wife and her lover in 1590 (and who, coincidentally, died 400 years ago this year), and his score is embued at key moments (especially the Intermezzi between scenes) with a Renaissance flavour; a period which Sciarrino also explores in Infinito Nero – ‘An Ecstacy in One Act’ for mezzo soprano and chamber ensemble – written around the same time (1998).

All four members of the cast and the MTW ensemble, brilliantly conducted by Michael Rafferty, were exemplary in their performance of this highly charged score. Amanda Forbes conjured the tormented dignity of an Ophelia or Desdemona as the Duchess, consummately ‘caught between two dreams’ of her husband and lover, both of whom she wants. Her desire-awakening duet with the anonymous Guest – the superb counter-tenor William Towers – was perhaps the most spellbinding passage of the evening in its sublime matching and contrasting of vocal timbres in unison, echo and counter-echo. But, equally, George Humphreys was magnificent as the devastated Duke whose murder of the Guest is the more powerful for its taking place off stage. The dismembered body’s unveiling in the marital bed is as cruel a revenge on an unfaithful operatic heroine as any I have seen. Michael Bennett was superb as the tale-telling servant who too must die, as he has brought dishonour on the Duke in the revealing of his wife’s infidelity: ‘far better you had stabbed my heart’.

Indeed, integrity and honour are themes which are explored from a number of angles – not least through the Duchess’s conundrum that, if she is to be true to herself, she has to admit the very feelings which will lead to her downfall and that of the men she loves. Such circular entrapments point to deeper ways in which Sciarrino traverses the mysterious realms between existential interrogation and the tracing of a story. The fragmentation of his characters is not merely psychological, but set against a pure, transient field of everything-nothing not unlike a Samuel Beckett play. The story and emotions are both fleeting and constant, immediate and afar. By unfolding the events of the plot in time through essentially static, ‘timeless’ means (albeit with distinctly historic Renaissance cues), Sciarrino calls into question the apparent opposition of deep human impulses such as surrender-resistance and suppression-expression. In this way, his unique, gestural language is used, not for deconstructivist ends, but to heighten the emotions we are simultaneously pulled into, and pushed back from, in his depiction of the characters’ internal states.

These ideas are at once simple and complex and, in The Killing Flower, they lay bare the paradoxes underlying human behaviour. The whole made for a powerful operatic experience in the skilled hands of Director Michael McCarthy, who placed the audience on the Millennium Centre main stage together with the cast and ensemble in a master-stroke of theatre. His production pulsed and shimmered with erotic tension and suppressed violence. Lit in gorgeous chiaroscuro, and cut through at points by sudden bright flashes, the set, costumes and stylised gestures of the singers mirrored the emotional intensity on all levels. Minimal props combined with Renaissance tunics and gowns in stark black and white helped to create an atmosphere of almost religious fervour. A white silk sheet, seductively dropped from the ceiling, made for both bed and shroud, whilst scattered petals, red roses and candles spoke eloquently of love, desire and death.

Sciarrino himself perhaps best summed up the apparent enigma of his art when he wrote in 1990:

‘Beethoven seems more aggressive than Mozart, but … Mozart’s music is sometimes more aggressive, for it succeeds in doing with a single sign what Beethoven achieves with all the energy of his fortissimos. To those who are used to modern life, my music may seem like an ant on the back of an elephant. I would rather see it as an erupting volcano seen from a distance.’

His opera The Killing Flower conveys energy, quiet aggression and distant beauty in equal fascinating measure. Music Theatre Wales deserve thanks as well as huge congratulations for bringing it so exquisitely to life in the UK at last.


* The title was translated by Sciarrino from the Italian Luci mie traditrici – literally ‘my betraying eyes’.

The Killing Flower can be seen at Venue Cymru, Llandudno tomorrow night, Saturday 2 November and at Swansea Grand Theatre on Tuesday 26 November.