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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Opera Review: The Lockdown

The New York Philharmonic exercises Il Prigioniero.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert. Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
It is a universal conceit that no worthy Italian operas were written after Turandot, the last (and unfinished) opera of Giacomo Puccini. The development of so-called "serial" or modern music and the rise of Fascism in Italy conspired to put an end to four centuries of that country's most famous art form.

On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic strove to prove otherwise, with its first concert performance of Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero, ("The Prisoner") a one-act work from 1950 that proved that the great tradition did indeed survive after Mussolini. The opera was paired with Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto as part of the orchestra's season-ending Gilbert's Playlist, a month-long festival catered to the personal listening habits of music director Alan Gilbert.

The Prokofiev concerto featured Lisa Batiashvili, the acclaimed Georgian soloist. Ms. Batiashvili opened the slow first movement with seductive, singing tone, leading the listener into the composer's innermost thoughts. Despite the large orchestra, there is a chamber-like quality to this music, an intimate monologue that always relies on the solo instrument to lay out the main musical statements.

The structure of this concerto is the reverse of the norm, with a fast central Scherzo flanked by the quieter opening movements. Ms. Batiashvili made this central movement exciting, with fast double-stopped runs and a sense of propulsive cooperation with Mr. Gilbert. The payoff was in the slow finale, where the lyricism of the first movement and the energy of the second came together in a final, radiant coda.

Dallapiccola's opera is set in Spain during the Inquisition, and explores the plight of a nameless title character incarcerated and tortured by the Holy Office for unknown reasons. This gloom setting is filtered through the 12-tone techniques of Schoenberg, the Austrian composer who discovered atonal music. Yet, despite the composer's unconventional techniques, the score of this opera is rich in chromatic harmony and full of brilliant musical ideas. The reason you don't see it more often are two-fold: Dallapiccola calls for a giant orchestra and chorus, and this grim opera is less than one hour long.

There are three main characters. The first of these is the title character's Mother, whose music is a palpable expression of anxiety at her son's fate. Patricia Racette excels in a role like this, holding the stage with a regal presence while letting her muscular instrument soar over the surging orchestra. As the titular Prisoner, Gerald Finley commanded the stage, expressing claustrophobia, terror and hope in the face of hopelessness. His performance brightened in warmth and color as his character discovered an apparent and unguarded escape route.

The final key player is the oleaginous Jailor, who is revealed in the opera's final scene to actually be the Inquisitor himself. Peter Hoare made this two-faced character chilling in his false compassion, a dark, character tenor reminiscent of the Doctor in Berg's Wozzeck. In his final dialogue with the almost-escaped Mr. Finley, Mr. Hoare used a slithering tone to convey the triumph of the institution over the individual, and the final death of hope as the Prisoner begs to be put to the stake.

Alan Gilbert led a finely detailed performance, reminding listeners of his strength as a vocal accompanist. The singers were supported by the Collegiate Chorale, which added to the ecclesiastical atmosphere with Latin chants and soaring prayers. Reunited here with Mr. Finley (the pair worked together on Doctor Atomic) he seemed to inspire the baritone to new depths of despair even as the giant ensemble threatened to drown the human voice. (Perhaps that was the composer's ultimate intent.) The orchestra moves through a huge palette of textures, with slab-like chiaroscuro chords slamming down on the hints of melody in the woodwinds and the strings. This is the sound of the 20th century, but this work's universal power and despair at the depravity of man remains chilling and relevant today.

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