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Sunday, January 2, 2011

DVD Review: Help! Help! The Bobble-heads!

Palestrina from the Bavarian State Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Neon Jesus: A scene from Palestrina with Christopher Ventris in the title role.
Photo by Wilfried Hösl for the Bavarian State Opera © 2011 EuroArts.
Palestrina is a challenge, even for aficionados of German opera. A self-proclaimed "musical legend," it is based on a (fictional) incident in the life of composer Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina. The opera depicts the grieving composer (Christopher Ventris) in his struggle to overcome the death of his wife and write the Missae de Papae Marcelli.

This DVD of a 2009 production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich may not win the work many new converts, but it is important as a record of one of the lesser, but more interesting German operas of the early 20th century. The performance, conducted ably by Simone Young, is a strong one. But this production leaves much to be desired.

Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) was a reactionary composer whose retrospective musical ideals were eclipsed only by his virulent anti-Semitism and open support of the Nazi party. That dark stain on his record is one reason for the relative obscurity of Palestrina outside central Europe.  But the opera's obscurity might also have something to do with its lack of a female lead (there are two trouser roles, an angel and the ghost of the composer's dead wife) and its obtuse libretto, also by the composer.

The music incorporates Wagner's musical idiom with a strong whiff of church incense in its soaring vocal lines and woodwind melodies. And unless you're a student of Renaissance polyphony and a Wagner addict, the complex, (yet slow-moving) plot of compositional self doubt combined with church politics lacks ready appeal. Highlights include the Act I and II Preludes and the "divine intervention" scene where Palestrina writes his Mass after a visit from the ghosts of several composers and the spirit of his late wife.

This production (by Christian Stückl) presents a surreal drama, with Palestrina himself as the one living man surrounded by white-faced ghosts and (also white-faced) rebellious music students. The composer's world presents a fever-dream environment picked out in white, hot pink and luminous, sickly green. Singers wearing huge, hideous puppet-heads play the ghost of Palestrina's wife and later Pope Pius IV-- making it impossible to understand the singers' performance since there's very little in the way of facial expression.

One of the problems with Palestrina is the fact that the entire second act is imposing, but dramatically inert. It is hard to determine whether Pfitzner was serious about depicting this historical event, because Mr. Stückl seems determined to present this meeting as ham-fisted satire. The whole sequence becomes a nightmare in the middle of the opera, a meeting of grotesque men in funny hats, with one Cardinal arriving in a white stretch limo. All the Church officials are in white makeup, giving them little to distinguish each other besides the cool hats that they are wearing.

The title role requires a strong Wagnerian tenor who can act and bring pathos to Palestrina's creative crisis. Christopher Ventris does an admirable job, soaring through the "Kyrie Eleison" passage and the lengthy dialogues with his nemesis, Cardinal Borromeo. Falk Struckmann brings his fine acting abilities to the role of the Cardinal, but his voice shows the wear of singing Wotan on the international stage.

The squabbling cardinals and bishops (an opportunity to assemble an "all-star" cast of German repertory singers) lacks glitter, although John Daszak and Michael Volle give strong performances as debating cardinals. Wolfgang Koch is a baritone with star presence as the Count Luna, whose presence at the Council does nothing to advance the plot.  The story finally trudges toward resolution in the third act. Here, Peter Rose sings with power and resonance as the Pope, despite being forced to sing and act through another silly bobble-head.

A trailer from Palestrina with footage from the performance.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.