Simone Young, cond; Christopher Ventris
Bavarian St O &Ch
EUROARTS 2072524 (Blu-ray: 197:00 + 9:00 bonus) Live: Munich 2009
To my eye,
the opera by Hans Pfitzner, librettist as well as composer, premiering in 1917, is a particularly flawed dramatic work. A testament to the perils of composers writing their own libretto, the opera is lumpy in the shape of its acts, relies on the overwrought German tradition of combining melodrama with pseudo-religious fervor (
comes to mind here), and has entirely too much dialog. Patterned after Wagner and perhaps, Richard Strauss, the work is in reality a quite decent orchestral score masquerading as an opera; there is very little of vocal interest in the three-and-a-half-hour piece. The story is about the Catholic Church’s Reformation struggle in the wake of Protestant criticism to resolve the dichotomy between spiritually uplifting polyphonic music where no one can understand the words, and plainchant, where everyone can hear just what they are praying about, as long as they understand Latin. With the dramatic addition of the characters of Palestrina’s young son and his music student it also becomes a parable of the new and innovative versus the old-fashioned. The First Act is 100 minutes long and actually contains the entire creation of the dramatic frisson and its resolution. Act II, a portrayal of the ecclesiastical events at the Council of Trent, feels tacked on, additional padding for a story that could have done with just Acts I and III. In it we are given a church conference, a bit like trying to set a week long Senate hearing to music. If you feel the need to add padding, far better a party scene, as in
, before getting back to serious business. The last act of
is basically the acknowledgement of the resolution of act I (where Palestrina writes the beautiful
Missa Papae Marcelli
with divine guidance). Act III is operatic fluff, the dramatic equivalent of musically returning to the home chord and resolving the dissonance to the ear, a short, feel-good scene to let us all go home happy.
This particular production, from Bavarian State Opera recorded in 2009, was reviewed in these pages quite recently by Barry Brenesal (
34: 3). He characterizes it as a fourth-rate effort by a third-rate hack (referring, I assume, to stage director, Christian Stückl, and set and costume designer, Stefan Hageneier). In general, Brenesal is spot on, this quite cold and austere staging is a disappointment in a work that needs all the help it can get, and did little to relieve the ennui that set in with me after viewing for an extended time. The director has admitted in an interview that he dislikes the work, and it shows. At times, the singers seem left to their own devices and are a bit directionless. The Bavarian State Orchestra is world class, of course, and here gives Pfitzner’s sometimes dense score every opportunity to impress. As Brenesal reports, the singing is uneven, and though largely superfluous, provides a modicum of enjoyment. Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann proves a nice vocal asset in the role of Cardinal Borromeo and Christiane Karg provides some needed vocal variety in the trousers role of Ighino, Palestrina’s son, to an opera without a female character. A chorus of angels, yes, and they sing quite divinely. The title role, sung here by tenor Christopher Ventris, is dramatically quite well served, even if not really outstanding vocally.
I assume we are reviewing this production again because of its issue in the Blu-ray format. The picture is indeed quite sharply detailed and the sound all you could want to hear in both PCM stereo and DTS surround. As I said, the orchestral score is worth a listen on its own and quite well performed and recorded on this set. As far as the opera itself, I might upgrade it to a third-rate effort by a second-rate hack, but that would be splitting hairs. In short, there is little in this set to warrant sitting through again.