When the baritone Evan Hughes agreed to sing the part of the wild boar in Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Venere e Adone,” premiering at the Hamburg State Opera on Saturday, he didn’t expect to become the star of the show.
In most opera versions of the Venus and Adonis myth, like John Blow’s “Venus and Adonis” (1683) and Hans Werner Henze’s “Venus und Adonis” (1997), the boar is silent or eliminated. But in “Venere e Adone,” with a libretto by Sciarrino and Fabio Casadei Turroni, the boar, or the Monster, is not just a singing role — he is the moral core of the story.
In this version of the myth, the Monster, who has five solo scenes, doesn’t mean Adonis harm. The creature has been hit by one of Cupid’s arrows, and instantly falls in love with the boy hunting him.
“I said yes to the project before I even really understood that the Monster was a sympathetic character,” Hughes said in an interview. “He only becomes violent because of the outside world.”
In an interview at his home in Città di Castello, Italy, Sciarrino, 76, said he considered the Monster to be the most human character in “Venere e Adone.” At the beginning, the Monster sings from a sort of existential limbo, unsure of who he is or what he wants. When he kills Adonis, who is hunting him, the Monster thinks he is caressing and kissing the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. Instead, he is mauling him to death.
“What is life for you is death for another,” Sciarrino said. “It is one of the keys to being in the world.”
“Venere e Adone” will be led by the Hamburg State Opera’s music director Kent Nagano and staged by it artistic director, Georges Delnon. It is the first Sciarrino production that Nagano has conducted, and although Delnon has known the composer for about 25 years, this is their first collaboration on a new opera.
The project began when Turroni, 59, a writer and former tenor, approached Sciarrino with a draft libretto based on a version of the Venus and Adonis myth by the Italian Baroque poet Giambattista Marino.
Sciarrino and Turroni began meeting frequently, often at a bar near the train station in Bologna, to shape the text together. (Drunk people can be useful sources of literary inspiration, said Turroni, who also works as a bartender in Bologna.) Over several months, they adapted it to the needs of the music; the final performance libretto was extracted directly from the score.
“Venere e Adone” broadly follows the contours of the myth. Venus, the goddess of love, has descended to earth to be with Adonis, enraging her husband, Mars. Adonis wants to prove to Venus that he is not just handsome but also strong, so he makes a plan to go hunting. Venus discourages Adonis; petulantly, he ignores her. In battle, the boar sinks its tusks into Adonis’s groin.
In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Adonis is transformed into a flower by Venus as a memorial to his short-lived beauty. In Turroni and Sciarrino’s version, both the beauty and the beast who kills him are transformed into this flower, becoming one with nature and each other.
“Venere e Adone” is Sciarrino’s 15th opera. His first, “Amore e Psiche,” also based on a mythical theme, was completed 50 years ago. In these works, Sciarrino has honed an unmistakable theatrical style: intimate, fragile and sparse, with clearly audible text.
While some artists go through distinct periods, Sciarrino has spent his career pursuing his peculiar brand of beauty. “I don’t really see a radical departure or sudden burst of experimentation that’s taken place over the years,” Nagano said in a video interview. “Rather, I would say that it’s a deepening and perhaps refining of a language so that it speaks in evermore poetic ways.”
“It is impossible to hear a human voice and remain indifferent,” Sciarrino once told the Brooklyn Rail.
He added: “Using the voice means employing simultaneously two forces, words and music. Singing without words is nonsense, like making a car without wheels.”
Unlike opera composers whose orchestral music reflects both the conscious and unconscious emotions of the characters, Sciarrino writes instrumental parts that summon their environment. In “Venere e Adone,” there is little accompanying music at all. Furtive echoes, forlorn bird calls and windlike breath sounds evoke a naked earth.
“The music of this opera is very dry,” Sciarrino said. “There are not so many sounds in this world, because it is an empty world.”
In “Venere e Adone,” the vocal music is also restrained. The singers intone the text quickly while sliding downward with their voices, or hold long, clear notes that blossom into brief melismas.
The countertenor Randall Scotting, who plays Adonis, compared “Venere e Adone” to an Emily Dickinson poem. “There’s so much in it,” he said, “but you have to think about it, interpret it, bring your own things to it in order to understand it.”
Sciarrino’s vocal style can be challenging for singers. The Canadian mezzo-soprano Layla Claire, in the role of Venus, spent so much time walking around her house while practicing rapid Italian phrases that her two young daughters started repeating fragments of the libretto.
“Once I started listening to Sciarrino’s music, I realized it was a language I didn’t speak,” said Hughes, the baritone. “As I started to work on it, I felt the same way that I felt at the beginning of studying, singing, learning a language that I really didn’t understand, like trying to sing in Russian.”
But Sciarrino’s vocal style isn’t completely unfamiliar. He is fascinated by the art and music of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque periods. The walls of his home are covered in paintings, including a 17th-century depiction of Adonis and his mother Myrrha by an anonymous Venetian artist.
Sciarrino himself almost became a painter. The influence of Renaissance and Baroque art will be palpable at the premiere of “Venere e Adone.” Delnon and his team have hung historical depictions of the Venus and Adonis myth in their rehearsal space at the State Opera, adapting the stylized gestures from the paintings to the stage. The set designer, Varvara Timofeeva, and the costume designer, Marie-Thérèse Jossen, are developing sleek, minimalist interplays of black, white, gray and blood red.
Delnon is aiming not for psychological realism, but for the artificiality of Baroque opera in his production. “You stage it in a way that you’re not trying to be the character,” he said, “but just trying to show the character.”
“Venere e Adone” also includes music that sounds explicitly Baroque. For Scotting, it is the rare work where his early and contemporary music come together. “There’s this thread of antiquity that ties into it all,” he said.
Sciarrino also uses the Baroque trope of a chorus that narrates and comments on the action. But while operas from that era often use the chorus to superimpose a neat moral on the story, Sciarrino deploys the vocal ensemble to more ambiguous ends. “Venere e Adone” concludes with a question: “Who triumphs, love or death?”
Here, the Monster is redeemed by those universal forces. “It’s as if Sciarrino is saying that the Monster is almost rewarded,” Delnon said, “and Adonis is punished.”
Sciarrino said the question was intentionally absurd and unanswerable. But, he continued with a laugh: “To tell the truth, love always wins. Or what we call love. That is the power of the word.”