Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Opera: Case Study of the Gesualdo Story in the Works by Schnittke and Sciarrino


The sequential presentation of events was a technique that, having dominated music for several centuries, proved to be effective as a means of shaping the musical form. After the decisive rejection of narrative by the musical avant-garde of the fifties and sixties, since the 1990s, there has been a tendency towards a return of narrative structures in opera. At the same time, composers try to invent new narrative strategies that are consistent with the evolution of musical material, as well as the new ideas about time and space in music.
This article discusses the similarities and differences in narrative technique in the operas by contemporary composers, written essentially on the same plot. The biography of Gesualdo di Venosa, who became famous for his madrigals, served as the basis for the libretti of “Gesualdo” in 7 tableaux (32 scenes) with the Prologue and Epilogue by Alfred Schnittke (1994) and “Luci mei traditrici” in 2 acts (8 scenes) by Salvatore Sciarrino (1998). In both cases, the narrative is crafted in a wide intertextual space woven from Renaissance musical quotes and allusions.
Schnittke’s opera is based on the interaction of several narrative programs — external and internal — which are developing in parallel and alternating in time until the final denouement. Sciarrino’s work is built on two narrative levels, with the composer often rejecting the word, musical characterization and detailed scenography. Through the silence and the expression of sound (including stylized sounds of nature), Sciarrino builds deep drama, emphasizing the narrative structure of his “musical tragedy.”
Despite the differences in the vocal and instrumental writing by the authors, their dissimilar understanding of the principle of stylistic diversity, as well as the different concepts of musical sound and musical expression, the two operas under consideration interpret the concept of narrative in a new way, give it a modern sense. Due to this renewal, the narrative remains a powerful basis for the formation of musical and, more broadly, aesthetic meaning.


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