Monday, June 10, 2013

Vieni fuori: Dallapiccola's Prigioniero with the NYPhil

I went to Saturday's concert with the New York Philharmonic for the sake of Luigi Dallapiccola's rarely performed Il Prigioniero, but ended up being entranced by the Prokoviev violin concerto which preceded it, as well.  Alan Gilbert and his orchestra were on very fine form. The degree of subtlety which they achieved in the concerto, and the sheer variety of orchestral textures in the opera, both were very impressive. I thought the latter might have used a little more dynamic restraint, but I don't know the score, and the overwhelming quality of the fortissimi may have been just what was called for.

Prokoviev's first violin concerto is singularly lovely; in this performance, it also registered as uneasy and elegiac. Its unusual form and unusual melodic patterns seemed to be gesturing towards an inarticulable truth. Lisa Batiashvili played with clarity and, in the first and third movements, with a haunting, remote melancholy of tone. Within the melancholy of the first movement she found extraordinary nuance, using the melodic progressions to move from near-anger to reflection sensual and sad as a rainy day, expressing questions of hope and fear. The strings supporting her were soft and smooth, the winds skillful and sympathetic in their echoing of the solo line. Gilbert emphasized the aggressive plurality of conflicting orchestral voices in the scherzo, with malicious pizzicato strings, wild winds, and dangerous brass. Batiashvili too embraced the unsettling mischief of the movement, varying her bowing technique, sometimes sweeping or bouncing against the strings, sometimes playing with almost delirious fluidity. Against the driven rhythms of the strings, the anxious questioning of the woodwinds, the plunging brass in the third movement, the dreamy romanticism of the solo violin wins an improbable victory. The intensity of the opera, in the second half, was of a different nature.
 Il Prigioniero is a work unusually steeped in literary allusion. It's deliberately cut free of the historical specificity of the short story by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam which provides the outline of its events, but its text is deeply indebted to Dante as well as to the Psalms. Reading Dallapiccola's own account of the work's genesis is fascinating (preview and citation through JStor here); in it he describes how his experiences in both world wars shaped his understanding of freedom, and of the torture of hope. For him, Victor Hugo's depiction of Philip II, as a tyrant whose "gaze was a burden upon the earth," was all too easily applied to Hitler. Dallapiccola expressed something like contempt for those who protested what they thought was a portrayal of them as tyrants at the work's premiere (both the Catholic Church and the Communist party.) But the protest is, I think, telling (let the galled jade wince!) and I found the performance especially poignant in light of the currently raging debate on civil liberties. In Il Prigioniero, although the prisoner and his mother have been crushed by an oppressive system, their voices--and those of the chorus--continue to work against it.

The orchestral writing is dense and varied and dodecaphonic, but I found it much easier to follow on first hearing than, say, Wozzeck. I found it stunningly gorgeous, distinctive but with strong reminiscences of Schoenberg, Pelleas, and Verdi's Requiem, inter alia. Also, I found it very exciting to hear this modernist writing for a big orchestra (maybe a cheap thrill, but definitely a thrill.) The braying chords of the opening speak of angry, industrial timekeeping, and form a striking contrast with the broken phrases of the soprano in her terror and grief. Her words are a litany grown meaningless from repetition. Patricia Racette was heartbreakingly excellent, conveying both the mother's anguish and the difficulty of bearing it with full, radiant, yearning sound. She maintained textual continuity through broken melodic phrases, leading the audience into a nightmare where man and machine are conflated, and using her powerful chest voice to good effect. Her vision ends in a scream which is magnified and taken over by the female chorus, in one of the most hair-raising moments of the score. A familiar biblical plea--Endue thy chosen ministers with righteousness and make thy chosen people joyful--rings out sounding unusually like an indictment. When her son joins her, their vocal lines intertwine poignantly, but there is a real question as to whether they understand each other. She is stifled by imagining the scars on his body; both of them have been damaged, driven apart by the torture of hope which he describes. Gerald Finley, in doing so, defied superlatives. His text painting and use of vocal color were profoundly expressive without being in the least showy, caressing and savoring the oft-repeated "Fratello," exploring the mystery of the word's healing power, giving "preghiera" a matter-of-fact simplicity that I found very moving. In imagining the end of tyranny being rung out over Europe, his voice was like the great bell itself in its triumph, the tolling echoed, embodied by the viscerally thrilling orchestra.

As the Jailer, Peter Hoare was compelling, his sinewy tenor and convincing malice providing a gripping contrast with Finley's rich baritone and battered decency. Hoare sang with insinuating subtlety, allowing the audience as well as the prisoner to think--at least for a moment--that his compassion might be genuine. The crash of the orchestra nearly overwhelmed Finley's great proclamation, but the latter lost none of its force (I became convinced that "sanguinario" is a word underused in opera libretti.) Changing orchestral textures and fragmented melodic lines charted the prisoner's journey through hallucinations: through shouting and madness and febrile, exhausted longing. Finley impressed not only by his command of vocal extremes, but his ability to convey emotional extremes in a way that never felt less than honest, acknowledging his own weakness ("debolezza estrema," floridly translated in the surtitles as "fearful exhaustion")  with no more than sad resignation. The third scene evoked terror and trauma with the use of Dante and the psalms, and what I think must have been a double bassoon. Radiant orchestral transparency supported Finley's gorgeous "Lazarus, come forth!" The immediacy of this cry was commented on in the dialogue of the two priests where living is contrasted with being in prison. William Ferguson and Sidney Outlaw deserve commendation for the polish and intensity of their brief appearance. The triumphant chorus of escape--this is a communal as well as a personal victory; I loved Dallapiccola's emphasis on this--was musically and dramatically thrilling. Here as elsewhere the orchestra produced gorgeous sound, echoing bells and choirs as the Collegiate Chorale proclaimed "O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouths shall show forth thy praise." Again I found myself moved by this use of a familiar, everyday part of the liturgy... and the prisoner's half-delirious shouts of alleluia seemed to contain all the eloquence of men and angels. The reappearance of the jailer occurs to haunting dissonances similar to those in Britten's War Requiem. The completely unhistrionic despair of Finley's prisoner was dreadful, and the final, interrogative "Libertà?" shows him broken... but perhaps not destroyed. He is, after all, still asking the question.

Update: this concert will be available for listening on the web here from Friday, June 21.



  1. Delighted to hear of the impression Il prigioniero made on you. To my mind, it is one of the very greatest twentieth-century operas. (I have a chapter on it in my new book, whenever that finally sees the light of day...!) By the way, you might find a comparison of the opening with that of Tosca illuminating.

  2. We had Mr. Gilbert as our Assistant Conductor here in Cleveland some years back, quite the very young fellow back then. He stepped in very recently to substitute for an ailing Pierre Boulez in performances of Mahler (7th) and Ravel (Mother Goose), and, seems to my memory, he did a fine job. I'm trying to remember: it seems to me I made some remark or other to another patron about some of the more animated characteristics of his conducting. Well, anyway, seems to me New York is lucky to have him.

    Sounds like it was a marvelous show all around. I don't now Dallapiccola's opera (although I've been seeing a great deal of press about it recently), but I do know that that Prokofiev Violin Concerto is gorgeous.

  3. @Mark Berry I'll have to listen again with Scarpia in mind! I was really blown away, and I'm sure it will repay further study. Thanks for the comment; I'll keep an eye out for your chapter.

    @Virgil Morant I'm glad to hear you have such positive memories of Maestro Gilbert's time in Cleveland. (You've a wonderful symphony; it's always a treat to hear them, whether there or visiting here.) The inventive programming of which this is an example is one of Gilbert's greatest gifts to the orchestra here, to my mind. Thanks for stopping by!


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