Dionysos, the son of Zeus and the human princess, Semele, was the last of the gods to arrive at Olympus, and was always seen as somewhat of an outsider.
Widely known for being the god of wine, of ritual madness and religious ecstasy, he is also the god of illusion and the theatre. He is associated with the giving over of the self to the senses, both pleasurable and painful, and of the abandonment of restraint and rationality, hence his worshippers indulge in frenzied revelries, who then reap both its positive and negative consequences. It is possible that the Dionysos cult may go back 3,500 years, yet the myth and its message still retain a strong hold over the human imagination, its relevance for today’s society as pertinent as ever, and this is the starting point for the composer, Roberto David Rusconi’s, new opera “Dionysos Rising,” premiered in Trento as part of the OPER.A.20.21, 2018-19 season.
Space & Sound
Rusconi, who is the “Artist in Residence 2019” for the Haydn Foundation of Bolzano and Trento, has an eclectic and experimental style, with a focus on the relationship between space and sound; in particular he explores how amplified sound can be used to create and aid the theatrical experience.
For “Dionysos Rising,” Rusconi uses a mixture of acoustic and electronic sound, making use of a small orchestra, consisting of 15 acoustic instruments, hidden behind a screen, with their sound amplified through 16 speakers positioned around the theatre, overlaid with pre-recorded playback electronic music and rumbling noises, brass and a small chorus of four voices. The aim was to surround the audience and immerse it in the “ideal” sound, one which it can feel and hear, but not see, with the orchestra kept out of sight so as to remove it as a focal point. The music is mostly discordant and disjointed, composed with many short phrases, from which occasionally emerge the voices of individual instruments and harsh rasping electronic sounds.
The music for the singers, however, is largely tonal, with longer phrases, which allowed for occasional oases of attractive singing. Overall, however, the effect is one of instability and disorientation, but extremely atmospheric, conjuring up a picture of suffering and turmoil, perfect in fact, for the environment and personalities of “Dionysos Rising.”
Rehabilitating A Myth
Rusconi chose to update the Dionysos myth to the present day, and to tease out its relevance by setting it in a rehabilitation centre. There are four main characters, all of whom are directly related to the myth, and suffer from some form of mental disorder.
Firstly, there is Dionysos himself, who is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations, incapable of grieving and in a dissociative relationship with his father.
Ampelos, who in the myth is a youthful satyr in love with Dionysos, is now transformed into a narcissistic adolescent, with a megalomaniacal and delusional personality.
Semele is cast as a mother who has not only lost her son, but has also been abused by her husband, and is now under sedation for a depersonalization disorder.
Finally, there is Dionysos’ daughter, Telete, who has been abandoned, feels unwanted, and is suffering from borderline personality disorder, and is suicidal.
They are all in a fight with their own demons, and are on illegal drugs and chemical medication to calm their mental torments. Rusconi interweaves incidents from their mythical stories into the drama, such as having Ampelos fight with a bull, which relates to one of the accounts of his death.
Other characters also make short appearances, who again are related in some form to the original myth, most forcefully in the case of Zeus himself, who confronts his son (Dionysos) and lover (Semele), but in the role of an hospital specialist.
Dance also plays an important part in the work, with four dancers who appear as orderlies and patients, and operate both openly and in the shadows.
Michael Scheidl, the director, was assisted by the scenographer and costume designer Nora Scheidl, Michael Grundner, responsible for the lighting designs, and Claire Lefèvre, responsible for the choreography, in what was a successful, if very disturbing presentation, in which reality and illusion, the rational and irrational are pitted against each other.
The set itself was a simple white frieze, in front of which the actors performed with a few basic props. The lighting was bright with only occasional variations, and the costumes were simple and traditional for the patients and their carers.
The focus of the drama was on the interpersonal actions of the patients, whose acting was too realistic, too close to the real horrors of the mental torments with which they were afflicted to make for a comfortable evening; scene after scene was played without any attempt to dull the pain, or to mitigate the endless sequence of tragic events, which Rusconi’s harsh and disconcerting score accentuates. It is only Ampelos’ suicide which brings it all to an end.
If the work had ended at this point, then it would have had to have be deemed a failure, being too one-paced, too predictable and containing too little musical or emotional variation to satisfy.
However, it did not end at that point. The set changed into black space, the lighting dimmed, the costumes of the dancers altered so that reality merged with myth, and Rusconi’s music changed direction.
Following Telete’s funeral, the cast embarked on a lengthy mesmerising dance session, underpinned by a clearly defined rhythm, which cleverly shifted the mood of the drama, whilst at the same time remaining faithful to the Dionysos myth. This was then followed by a quasi pastoral concluding scene, to the sound of a traditional sounding air. The effect was to elevate work, not just dramatically, but also musically and intellectually.
All the singers had their voices amplified, in order to alter the natural balance between sound and space, not because of any weaknesses in their voices. Dionysos, who surprisingly had the smallest part of the four principal characters, was played by the American baritone, Zachary Wilson. He gave a good performance in the role. His voice exhibited a pleasing tone and he articulated his lines clearly.
The role of Telete was undertaken by the Austrian soprano, Da-yung Cho. She acted out the role superbly; her moods, changeable and extreme; her actions, violent and passive, wild and bizarre. She was able to carry this portrayal into her singing, which was so expressive that her pain became almost tangible.
The Czech soprano, Anna Quadratrova, essayed the role of Semele with real flair. She captured her depersonalised state perfectly, interacting disinterestedly in her medicated semi-coma, her vacant expression revealing her inner hollowness. Her singing, however, was far removed from such a state; it was expressive and fresh with an attractive youthful timbre.
Ampelos was played by the countertenor, Ray Chenez, whose manic behaviour was worryingly credible. He spent almost the whole time with a large inane grin etched on his face as he waltzed himself around the stage in his wheelchair. For a countertenor he has wonderfully chromatic voice, which he employed skillfully in characterizing the role.
The conductor, Timothy Redmond, did an excellent job marshaling the musical forces, which included directing the singers from television monitors, and produced energetic and engaging musical experience.
Lasting about 90 minutes, this was an interesting an imaginative work, although emotionally difficult for the first hour or more. Certainly, if you are looking for a traditional work, replete with choruses and arias, or if you are very sensitive to the miseries which can affect the human mind, then maybe you should give it a miss.
However, if you are looking for new and innovative theatre, and prepared to engage with experimental forms, or enjoy theatre that engages on a cerebral as well as the emotional level, then “Dionysos Rising” certainly makes for an interesting and ultimately enjoyable evening.