The world premiere of Madina, the new dance-opera by Fabio Vacchi, hits the stage at last. Expected to be performed last year, that performance was nixed due to the Covid lockdown in Italy. This year, as the public health crisis lets up, the first-ever performances of Madina, five in all, get underway at Milano’s La Scala on October 1.
Commissioned by La Scala and SIAE, with book by Emmanuelle de Villepin based on her novel La ragazza che non voleva morire (“The Girl That Didn’t Want to Die”), Madina combines vocal music and dance. Choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, the premiere production stars Roberto Bolle and prima ballerina Antonella Albano. Conducted by Michele Gamba.
Teatro-Danza in tre quadri per attore, soprano, tenore, coro misto, corpo di ballo e orchestra
Libretto by Emmanuelle de Villepin based on her novel La ragazza che non voleva morire
Commissioned by Teatro alla Scala and SIAE
WP: Milano, Teatro alla Scala,1 October 2021
Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company, Chorus and Orchestra, étoile Roberto Bolle, choreography Mauro Bigonzetti, conductor Michele Gamba, actor Fabrizio Falco, lights and sets Carlo Cerri, costumes Maurizio Millenotti
Excerpt from the essay Madina and Dance-Opera
by Emilio Sala, from the Teatro alla Scala program notes
Madina is Fabio Vacchi’s tenth opera. I say “opera” but the composer refers to the work as “dance-theater”, and indeed its world premiere is part of La Scala’s dance season. For a while now, I have thought of the work as “plural neutral” – a way of going beyond standard categorizations. And what better place to begin a discussion of Vacchi’s dance-opera? If we look at this work as a piece in the puzzle of the composer’s creative progress, we can’t help but note the similarities between it and Vacchi’s “Urban Art Dance Opera” which premiered at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence in 2016, Lo specchio magico. Vacchi appears to be intent on hybridizing opera, blending it with a series of different forms of representation, performance and media. This includes not only spoken recitation (he harbors a passion for melologues), but dance as well. However, I think it’s even more interesting to view Madina from the outside, which is to say, from the perspective of the dance-opera scene of the past few decades. Aficionados will certainly recall “epochal” experiences like Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, choreographed and staged by Pina Bausch, as well as Trisha Brown’s version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The case of Bausch is emblematic. That production was from 1975, well before her crucial turning point in Tanztheater. But the huge international success enjoyed by the reprise of Orphé et Eurydice just a few years before Pina’s death in 2009 speaks to what can (and must) happen in the wake of the dance-theater period. Thus, if the aim is to move ahead and go beyond, today the encounter between opera and dance can’t not take into account Tanztheater. This brings to mind choreographers like Lucinda Childs, Mark Morris, Wayne McGregor (I am of course referring to the latter’s interpretation of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which was staged in London in 2019). When it comes down to it, in the wake of the avant-garde, Pina Bausch, and minimalism, how are we to consider the relationship between opera and dance?
As we have already seen, dance-opera of our times seems to be particularly obsessed by the myth of Orpheus. Here we should most definitely mention the case of Passion, with music by Pascal Dusapin, direction and choreography by Sasha Waltz (another key figure in the discussion). Indeed, the story is based on the Orpheus myth, and the two singing roles are continually integrated within choreographic context, void of linguistic jolts, and packed with silences and sighs as if to challenge a sense of delicate monotony. While Vacchi’s starting point involves analogous problems, he takes a different approach to dealing with them. Madina features two singers (soprano and tenor), but it also includes an actor and chorus. The work’s musical and theatrical construction consists of a montage of juxtaposed dramaturgical forms: vocal pieces (sung), dance (always accompanied by an orchestra), choruses, recitation and melologues. What’s more, his subject has nothing whatsoever to do with mythological archetypes. Instead, it revolves around some of the most abject current events, based on Emmanuelle de Villepin’s novel La ragazza che non voleva morire, where the theme is terrorism and the dilemma of a young woman who is a would-be suicide bomber – a kind of shroud over the collective consciousness, and very much discussed at the scientific level. One aspect that has been a major focus of sociologists internationally involves the link between young female terrorists willing to sacrifice all in the name of this or that cause and the sexual abuse they often undergo. Rape is a widely used practice aimed at instilling a sense of loss of honor and family ties in the minds of future fighters and suicide bombers, which also boosts the effect of the manipulatory propaganda designed to create a need for a distorted sense of redemption, which their captors use as leverage. There’s no room here for an in-depth comparison of the novel and the libretto, but we cannot help but mention that while in de Villepin’s novel the girl Madina is Chechen, with the libretto we are at a loss to pinpoint the location of the apocalyptic scene that the future terrorist grew up in. Vacchi’s work doesn’t give us a clue. But by the sound of the music, rather than Chechnya it could just as well be set in Syria or Palestine or Kurdistan or Iraq or in Sarajevo during the war in ex-Yugoslavia, etc. By not being location-specific, Vacchi not only seeks universalize the story: In stripping the apocalypse of a specific location, he achieves an anxiety-producing effect by suggesting that the same catastrophe might be found just about anywhere you go.
Photo: Roberto Bolle and Antonella Albano / © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano - Teatro alla Scala