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A Berio sampler

Originally commissioned by Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 1982, Luciano Berio's ``La vera storia'' (The True Story) was hailed as a ``masterpiece'' by the French press after its performance at Paris Op'era, a production repeated here for the 49th Maggio Musicale. (After seeing this production, I would slightly qualify the word ``masterpiece.'')

The text of this musical theater piece was forged by the late Italo Calvino, and contains (the author says) ``the primal elements of 18th-century melodrama: condemnation, abduction, revenge, weather, night, duel, cry, prisoner, sacrifice.''

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``The True Story'' is a twice-told tale, a glimpse of the conflicts in Verdi's ``Il Trovatore'' expressed from two different points of reference. Berio has said that ``the two parts express in different ways the same thing. Part 1 is a paradigm of conflicting elements ... respresented with means familiar to the musical theater: songs, arias ... and so on. The text of Part 2 is identical to Part 1, but distributed ... in a different way.''

In addition to the pit orchestra, Berio has used instruments on stage: from guitars and a player piano to a marching band.

``La vera storia'' will be presented in a semi-staged version conducted by the composer at London's Royal Festival Hall on March 4, 1989.


Italian composer Berio has been asked to write a musical theater piece for the anticipated 1990 unveiling of the new Bastille Opera House in Paris. What will it be called? ``Quite simply,'' Berio says, ``it's titled `Musical.'''

The libretto?

``I don't believe in a `classic' libretto. I don't want to do anything in that category of writing. The concept of `libretto' was dead a long time ago!''

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The words or text for the musical theater piece, then?

``I will write it myself. I am working with the Italian poet, Eduardo Sanguinetti ... and the Chilean author, Gaston Salvatore, who now lives in Venice.''

The ``generating idea''?

``It's ... vaguely connected with the theories of Propp, a Soviet scholar who, many years ago, wrote what I consider a fundamental book, `Morphology of Fairy Tales.' There's a stimulous coming from that.''

The music itself?

``I'll use the conventional opera house orchestra, but a rather large one. I will use it in groups, in `stereotypes': string quartet, saxophone quartet, solo piano, brass quintet. ...'' `Un re in ascolta'

``There is neither prologue nor plot nor plan of events, nor sentiments expressed by characters who set up moral conflict in song,'' Berio says of his ``Un re in ascolta'' (The King Who Is Listening), which this critic heard at LaScala immediately following its Salzburg premiere. ``But there is the analysis of a musical-dramatic situation and the representation of a farewell.''

The ``farewell'' of the work is that of Prospero, who, acting as an impressario, is preparing a production of Shakespeare's ``The Tempest.'' Visually and aurally we find him in the ambiance of the theater confronting the problems of production: hysterical leading ladies, a frustrated choreographer, an overworked stage manager, clowns, musicians ... and always - simultaneously - solo auditions. Finally, threatened by his own world, Prospero collapses and dies, abandoned to ``the silence of the inner being.''

The underlying concept - ``listening'' - came to the late Italo Calvino (who helped Berio concoct the text) one day as he researched the word in an encyclopedia. One ``listens'' to the resulting Berio score - highly complex and multiply textured - on many levels, sometimes introspectively and analytically, at other times superficially as the hint of a folk song is suggested.

``Un re in ascolta'' will be presented at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in February 1989.

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