When Sadler’s Wells Opera was still performing in Rosebery Avenue – before decamping to the Coliseum in the later 1960s and shortly thereafter changing its name to ENO – I seem to recall a number of school trips I went on as a boy to hear works by the likes of Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ildebrando Pizzetti and (the Swiss) Heinrich Sutermeister. Nowadays, I imagine that most groups of early teenage boys are instead taken en masse to visit reformatories and young offenders’ institutes, with a view to familiarising them with what for many will soon enough become their adult milieu. (I jest. Just.)
Whatever happened to the world of opera that such composers should have effectively vanished from the repertory? Whatever happened to the broad-based, internationalist cultural outlook that in 1976 saw the ROH commission a new opera from Hans Werner Henze (We Come to the River, never once revived) and sustained the World Theatre season of top-ranking visiting companies performing in their own languages – Polish, Swedish, Japanese, you name it, and this in the era before surtitles – to packed houses at the Aldwych, year-in, year-out? At what point and for what reason did the ROH decide only to commission and/or stage new operas by virtually exclusively English composers, thereby both turning its back on the wider world of opera (including the American), and also, into the bargain, usurping what was once - and should surely still be - ENO’s proper function? More importantly, where does such blinkered artistic insularity that prefers to mount at vast expense and effort a third-rate tuneless and pointless musical about a blonde bimbo’s boobs leave a genuinely important composer like Luigi Dallapiccola, and a work of such blistering power and – alas - timeless political significance as his Il prigioniero? (in complete and disgraceful limbo is the answer to that little piece of rhetoric, unfortunately). Something is (and has long been) rotten in the State of Denmark as represented by opera in Bow Street: let’s hope that the new Head of Opera – ironically, Danish - clears away at least some of the cosy provincialism that has ruled the roost there for far too long, and sets the house to looking outwards again, rather than contemplating its own theatrical navel and a musical catchment area defined by the M25.
Awaiting that happy day (yeah, right), in the interim, we have every reason to be very grateful to the Philharmonia Orchestra for mounting a semi-staged concert performance of what is still, sixty and more years after its stage premiere (in Florence, in 1950) one of the twentieth century’s most bleak and bitterly effective operas. For a work of just under fifty minutes’ duration, it packs an almighty wallop: and is so flawlessly structured as both a dramatic and musical entity, with a perfect operatic balance of weight and repose, action and introspection, ends and means, that it’s hard to believe that it was the first opera to have been written by the composer (who was pushing forty when he began writing it in 1943). Dallapiccola – who died in 1975 – was in effect Italy’s first serialist composer, writing in the twelve-note system pioneered by Schoenberg in the earliest 1920s. This is the system underpinning Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, and the latter’s strong tonal pulls in the full-bodied orchestral writing finds a mirror-image in Dallapiccola’s treatment of the vocal lines in Il prigioniero, which though strictly serialist, exude a sort of race-memory of Italian lyricism in their sinuous, eminently singable and rewarding parts.
The opera is set in Saragossa during the time of the revolt against Catholic rule in Flanders and the Inquisition inaugurated by Philip II of Spain (here described as “that son of a vulture”
(Charles V) who is no more than the personification of death: the world of Verdi’s Don Carlo looms large). An unnamed prisoner awaits execution after extensive torture; is visited by his mother; is apparently comforted by his Gaoler, who brings news of Flemish victories against Philip’s brutal rule; manages to escape via a carelessly-unlocked door; makes his hesitant way through the prison’s dark bowels ostensibly unobserved by two priests; and finally emerges into the sweet, starlit night of a garden, only to be greeted by the Gaoler, now revealed to be the Inquisitor himself, incredulous that anyone should wish to avoid their own salvation at the stake. An icy allegory of the remorseless nature of absolutist authority and its cruel pretence at offering hope as the price of political acquiescence, it was inspired by Mussolini’s announcement in 1938 that Nazi race laws would be implemented in Italy as part of the Axis alignment. For Dallapiccola, who had once before been deported and interred as a boy in Austria, this became the defining moment of his artistic life, and the well-spring of much of his best music that followed thereafter. It is therefore entirely fitting that the piece should appear in the first concert of the Philharmonia’s ambitious series entitled “The still point of the turning world”: Music that defines an era which will run into the summer (and include such other “Statement of Personal Belief” works as Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony and Britten’s War Requiem, neither of them to be missed).
The text of Il prigioniero is a conflation of two separate sources, both recherché to a degree; though the main one – La torture par l’espérance, one of Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Nouveaux contes cruels - undergoes a radical change from the perfumed French perviness of the highly de Sade-esque original to a far more politicised standpoint. Standing behind that is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, the original Gothic grand-guignol torture-fest set during the Spanish Inquisition (best not to think of Vincent Price in this context, though I admit it is nigh-on irresistible). In that role of the Gaoler/Inquisitor, Peter Hoare added yet another highpoint to his already impressive gallery of sinister creeps, singing with unforced clarity, precision and power. (Will someone please realise that with Langridge dead, this is now the Loge par excellence for Das Rheingold.) Paoletta Marrocu, who has been around for years and sung practically everything, everywhere - though nothing in London – was just as effective as the unnamed mother (Magda Laszlo’s old role: that I would have liked to have heard). Though she has been singing her extraordinarily wide and demanding repertory – Norma, Lady Macbeth, Minnie, Aida – for some time, the voice is in remarkably secure nick, with no loosened vibrato (invariably the first casualty caused by such roles) and she maintains an even emission across well-defined but integrated registers. I thought she was quite superb, big, bright and fearless, as a mother driven to emotional extremity by her son’s plight.
Marrocu benefitted most of all from the costumed, music-stand-free staging that confined all the singers to a narrow strip of forestage immediately in front of the enormous orchestra, with no more than a few chairs and a handful of piercing spotlights, through whose beams thick smoke – incense? – curled incessantly, to act as a distraction from the intensity of everyone’s utterance. With the auditorium completely blacked-out, and the band working from discreet desk-lights only, the theatrical impact was electrifying. The only real caveats I’d enter about David Edwards’ otherwise fine realisation is that we surely shouldn’t be party to the deception being practised on the prisoner – we should see it all through his eyes, not see it through his tormentors’ – and it would have been better to have produced some visible analogue to the progress of his “escape” laterally across the considerable width of the RFH’s stage, rather than have it reduced to a slightly indecisive to-ing-and fro-ing around a fixed point stage-centre (though that of course has its own justification in the way the story turns out, it is true).
As the titular prisoner, the Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar gave a performance that was not only vocally thrilling, but carried with it the weight of experience gathered, I imagine, from a number of stagings of the work in which he has appeared, including one by Christopher Alden (whose productions I usually loathe, whilst grudgingly admiring the individual and very emphatic Personenregie they often contain). Vasar looks young: perhaps still on the right side of thirty. But the voice is fully-formed, perfectly even in emission, rich-toned and dark-hued: and he stints nothing in the almost harrowing intensity of his performing. He would be a wonderful Don Giovanni or Onegin or Billy Budd, and I only hope someone from either of our houses was in tonight wearing their casting hat (and was listening, equally impressed, to Ms. Marrocu, for that matter). Sterling work from Brian (not Briin as the cast-listing had it) Galliford and Francisco Javier Borda as the two priests, an alarming pair of contrasting body types straight out of The Name of the Rose: and from the rather unnecessarily-amplified Philharmonia Voices, subtly-enough done (I asked the man at the mixing desk what he was up to) but such a sonorous, superb body of sound as to need no pumping-up, even if Dallapiccola himself had apparently thought it desirable in the last choral intermezzo in order to overwhelm the listeners. And we were, believe me. I know the difference between an audience that’s listening politely because it’s been taught it ought to, and one that’s hanging off the edge of their seats: and it was the latter phenomenon we were dealing with tonight, right up to the final, whispered word from the doomed prisoner: “Freedom?”
I can’t say that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s oddly nervelessly suave and overly-upholstered performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the first half did much for me. The work might well define an era, but in that case it needs much sharper definition in the orchestra, which had far too many strings – 60 – and, notwithstanding old timps hit with hard sticks, lacked any real sense of the work’s fierce and demonic power (something’s surely wrong when the three trombones, making their entrance in the last movement for the very first time in a classical symphony, don’t so much impose sonically as sink into a Brucknerian wall of well-blended brass). And don’t even get me on to the subject of repeats and the logic – or illogic – of their observance, or, as here outside of the first movement, non-observance. Never mind: the Dallapiccola was the thing tonight; and it was magnificent. For a score which the band can barely know, they played with complete conviction and a level of corporate virtuosity that would grace any platform in the world. Doubtless much of this success is due to Salonen’s long-standing championship of Dallapiccola’s music – he recorded Il prigioniero for CBS/Sony with his then Swedish Radio forces back in the 1990s, with Jorma Hynninen and Phyllis Bryn-Julson – and to his clear and considerable powers of communication, which whipped the accumulated forces into a fiercely concentrated, remorselessly grim expressivity that never once let up. After a performance as overwhelming as this, it seems even more incomprehensible that the work is not part of the regular repertory here (finding a suitable pairing is possibly a problem, though Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle would go well enough. Thinking about it, somebody should try pairing it with the similarly-set, but triumphantly-ending Friedenstag, Strauss’s own ultimately optimistic disquisition on the psychological scarring war causes). All credit to those at the Philharmonia who made this memorable concert possible.
Photographs © Katja Tähjä (Salonen), Monika Rittershaus for Netherlands Opera (Lauri Vasar/ Paoletta Marrocu)