From chains to the Almighty
Twentieth century operas in Rome,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
The Santa Cecilia National Academy is essentially a symphonic complex, and one of the best internationally. It also has a chamber music season. Occasionally, it produces concert performances of operas, but even though the frequency of these occasions has increased since Sir Antonio Pappano has been musical director, this not the Academy's primary vocation; there is only a 'non subscription performance' of Verdi's Aida in the June 2014-June 2015 program. Also, normally the concert operas selected are outside of the mainstream repertory.
During the last few weeks, I heard and saw two such programs: a concert performance of Luigi Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero (merged with Beethoven's music) and a concert performance of highlights of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, together with Poulenc's Stabat Mater. I heard Il prigioniero on 28 April and Les Dialogues des Carmélites on 10 May 2014. There is both a musical and conceptual link between the two operas: they both belong to the nineteen forties and fifties, and both describe a journey from the chains of humanity to God Almighty. I discussed Il prigioniero extensively here on 2 April 2011. Its Rome performance was a special event with the Head of State and the President of the European Commission in the auditorium, because it coincided with the celebrations of Italy's liberation from occupation by the Nazis. Il prigioniero is no doubt one of the most important twentieth century Italian operas — American musicologist Ethan Mordden calls it 'a landmark entry in the index of modern opera'.
The story deals with the seventeenth century rule of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands. Does true freedom exist in a world of tyranny? This is the question posed in a gruelling series of scenes. It appears that the protagonist — the prisoner — has escaped. He emerges from the dungeon into the open, under a starry sky, but then is finally annihilated. The music is as shattering as the story. The score is a perfect rack of agony and hallucination, even though it tends to serial discipline and does not exude any Italian mellifluousness. In one scene, the orchestra 'improvises' on motives of textual significance. The chorus plays a decisive part.
The orchestration is hard, the harmonies and the rhythms are harsh, and the twelve note row system prevails. Three of the tone rows are particularly important; they may be defined as representing prayer, hope and freedom. They are also thematic nuclei, musical cells that are of fundamental importance throughout the opera. In one of these, the three dissonant chords with which the opera opens (and which are heard repeatedly throughout the work) immediately give an idea of the degree of tragic tension which dominates the whole work. The total chromatic mold is obtained by means of tritones.
Another important motif is at the devious gaoler's word Fratello! ('Brother'). Formed by intervals of a second and minor third respectively with a descending chromatic succession of three notes, supported by two minor triads, it forms the central core of the opera.
Il prigioniero requires a huge orchestra and a large and well-trained chorus as well as singers accustomed to the twelve tone system and declamation. The musical performance was excellent with Pappano in the pit, the chorus directed by Ciro Visco and three outstanding protagonists: Angeles Blanca Gulin, Louis Otey and Stuart Skelton. In my view, however, it was not a good idea to merge Il prigioniero (without interruption) with Florestan's jail aria from Beethoven's Fidelio and the last two movements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Not only are there major differences in musical writing (and period), but the power of Il prigioniero nearly overwhelmed Beethoven.
Dialogues des Carmélites is an absolute masterpiece even if in 1957, at its world premiere at La Scala, the opera might have appeared stylistically dated. The highlights gave the listener an effective summary of this complex and moving opera. Also the scenes, and especially the final scene, were semi-staged, which helped to keep the tension.
The orchestra was conducted by a specialist in this field, Stéphane Denève. The singers were all of excellent quality: Jean François Borras, Karen Vourc'h, Monica Bacelli, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Hélène Guilmette, Laurent Naouri and members of the chorus (Michele Malagoli, Simonetta Pelacchi, Tiziana Pizzi and Carlo Napoletani) in secondary roles. The audience was enthusiastic, but had enjoyed only an appetizer; the last time that the complete opera was staged in Rome was in 1991 (an excellent production which travelled to Cagliari, Catania and Trieste).
Before Les Dialogues des Carmélites, the orchestra, chorus and Hélène Guilmette gave an excellent performance of Poulenc's Stabat Mater, seldom heard outside France.
Copyright © 30 May 2014 Giuseppe Pennisi,