When a premiere is a succès de scandale, it is hard to be certain (57 years later) whether it was the music or the politics that made the rumpus. Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (as the publishers prefer to call it nowadays, a more universal focus than Intolleranza 1960, the original title) was howled out of La Fenice by angry crowds in 1961 (someone shouted “Viva la polizia!”), and was not produced again in Italy for 30 years.

Intolleranza was blackballed in Boston by the John Birch Society in 1964, so that its American premiere had to be postponed a year. Then Beverly Sills, who sang The Companion, detested the music, which is usually the only thing any American remembers about it. Some West German productions were well received in those the early days of the Berlin Wall. But the Germans knew and repented fascism more entirely than Americans or even Italians did—and had a German police state on their doorstep at the time. Too, the Germans were (and remain) far more receptive to advanced modern idiom in opera than Americans ever were.

The story—insofar as there is one—concerns one of Italy’s impoverished southerners who has given up trying to find work in the north (think of Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, which is contemporary) and hopes to get home—only to be captured by police forces who torture confessions of subversion out of him. Miners and Algerians get caught up in the mess, but eventually the Emigrant finds home and female solace. In 1970, the whole thing—especially the depictions of strike, riot and torture in the music—might have found more currency if not popularity.

Intolleranza was presented by Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. This is an unusually recent piece for his annual concert revival of a forgotten opera (which tend to be late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century), and surely it is the currency of the libretto, the torture of immigrants and strikers by menacing police forces encouraged by hysterical media, that brought it to Botstein’s notice and kept the audience rapt and intrigued for 65 minutes.

The opera’s obscurity is understandable: It is composed in an uncompromising idiom, atonal and complex, with 12 percussionists, each of whom has a snare drum in addition to whatever else is to be played, many sections are declaimed, recited, shouted through a megaphone rather than sung, and yet the demands from the orchestra, chorus and soloists are insanely awkward. This is not a work composed to soothe or seduce its audience but to challenge, to offend, to assault their ears. No negotiations. No surrender. If you want to arouse revolt of the masses against the bosses among a general audience, you might more rewardingly try Fidelio or Masaniello or The Cradle Will Rock.

But if you’re going to give Intolleranza, well, in for a penny, in for a pounding (of the percussion, I mean.) The orchestral, choral and solo forces last Thursday gave extraordinary performances, haunting phrases if not melodies, erupting, writhing, shattering drumbeats and screams, and a certainty in performing impossible harmonies that fascinated the hall. The enthusiasm at the end was heartfelt and well earned. Botstein, whose essays into late romanticism can be inspiring or puzzling, demonstrated what his band can achieve when mightily challenged, and James Bagwell’s Bard Festival Chorus were in expert riotous form.

The individual singers tossed off their assignments as if they munched tone rows for breakfast. Daniel Weeks, the Emigrant everyman, was earnest if a little dry as he sent his light tenor all over its compass during his picaresque and desperate adventures. In smaller roles, Matthew Worth and Carsten Wittmoser sang effectively.

Hai-Ting Chinn, well known around New York in a gamut of music from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, was plausibly sinister in the sensuous music of the Woman who attempts to distract the Emigrant and, later, to crush him.

Serena Benedetti, who drew the Sills role of the Emigrant’s Companion, tossed the crazy music off like some amiable cabaletta, her lovely, deep soprano mastering the dramatic phrases lyrically, the lyric phrases dramatically. This is a voice one is very eager to hear take on more wide-ranging assignments. Apparently she can do anything beautifully. In an arduous but brief walk-on, soprano Elizabeth Smith made a striking impression.

Photo: Matt Dine