Salvatore Sciarrino’s 1982 monodrama “Lohengrin” is, among many other things, a masterful act of deflation. Think of Wagner’s four-hour grand opera: Sciarrino’s version lasts only an hour, is written for a chamber ensemble rather than an orchestra, and reduces the dramatis personae to a single singer. Most crucial, the heroism and gallantry of the German myth are punctured, leaving in their wake a fever dream of rejection and loss — or, as Sciarrino described it, “a monstrous landscape of the soul.” You who seek a wedding march, look elsewhere.
Performances of “Lohengrin” are rare, so it was unsurprising that Saturday’s performance came from the crusading sinfonietta Sound Icon, Boston’s leading purveyors of recent European modernism. Handling the vocal duties was the outstanding new-music soprano Tony Arnold, from whom the composer demands an array of sounds that include whispering, swallowing, moans, bird calls, the ticking of a clock, coughing, even chattering teeth. Just about anything except actual singing.
The “invisible action,” as Sciarrino calls it, is told through Elsa’s eyes, beginning with Lohengrin’s refusal to consummate their marriage on their wedding night. In an inversion of Wagner’s plot, Lohengrin first departs on the white swan, then returns on it, all while Elsa mutters in an increasingly unhinged way. At the end, everything is revealed to be an elaborate hallucination: Elsa is actually a patient in a mental hospital. The soprano voices all the parts: Elsa in a tightly wound frenzy, Lohengrin with a flat, ruthless uniformity.
Done properly, as it was Saturday, “Lohengrin” is terrifying for the near-silence with which Sciarrino depicts Elsa’s psychic damage. The impression is largely dependent on the soprano, and Arnold, sitting at a table covered in black, was magnificent, riveting the audience’s attention with every little vocal tic. It’s a testament to her artistry that even a malfunctioning headset microphone couldn’t break the concentration needed to bring off this emotionally and technically demanding role.
As for the music, it neither closely depicts nor is completely removed from the action. Rather, it seems to hover, ghost-like, around the narration, just as the moon lingers inexorably around Elsa — promising her, and then denying, redemption. It is almost uniformly soft, with little resembling a motif or melody, the better to point up the sense of irreality. Toward the end, as the scene shifts to the asylum, a pair of clarinets trills around a single note as Elsa sings for the first time, in a kind of detached singsong. The effect is devastating.
As a curtain-raiser, Sound Icon played Sciarrino’s ensemble piece “Fanofania” (2010), with textures that are even more austere and elusive. The piece depends for its effect on precisely calibrated dynamics — different species of quiet meticulously layered on one another. This sort of pointillistic sound requires both skill and sympathy; Sound Icon and its conductor, Jeffrey Means, brought both. Boston is lucky to have this group, and it was good to see the Fenway Center almost full of like-minded listeners.
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