Il prigioniero: Royal Festival Hall, 26th January 2012

E-mail Print PDF

When Sadler’s Wells http://img62.imageshack.us/img62/8513/prigionieromarrocu.jpgOpera 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 ofhttp://img209.imageshack.us/img209/71/prigionierolaurivasar2.jpg 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 http://img851.imageshack.us/img851/1301/prigionierosalonenesape.jpgthat 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.

4-half_stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Katja Tähjä (Salonen), Monika Rittershaus for Netherlands Opera (Lauri Vasar/ Paoletta Marrocu)



Last Updated ( Sunday, 29 January 2012 00:06 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


 

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


 

Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


 

Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."


 

News

ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.


 

 

Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>

 

 


News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at info@opera-britannia.com.

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



 


 


CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Althoughhttp://img197.imageshack.us/img197/8908/gkdw.JPG he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>


Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this http://img14.imageshack.us/img14/7950/npze.jpgrecital was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>


DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now http://img543.imageshack.us/img543/5228/vu6o.jpgcast doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>


Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter