S&H Opera Review

PFITZNER Palestrina Royal Opera House, 29 January 2001 (AW)

Palestrina, with music and text composed by Hans Pfitzner, is bound to divide audiences between those who are affected by the music and the sentiments expressed, and those who have reservations about the quality of this sound edifice and resistance to the ideological world that this work inhabits.

Palestrina was written and first performed during the First World War. Although known well on the continent, in this country it was not premiered professionally until 1997 at Covent Garden. The present revival of that Lehnhoff/Thielemann production has been strengthened, on all accounts, by important cast changes, notably Philip Langridge as Palestrina and John Tomlinson as Boromeo.

The opera is set at the time of the Council of Trent and the Catholic Church's attempts to come to terms with the Reformation. While talking about the distant past, the underlying concerns are with the revolutionary changes, cultural as well as political, which were sweeping across Europe during the early part of the 20th century.

Some of the audience's problems with this work are exacerbated by contrasts between the originating material and the production values. The text contains a long-winded exposition of opposites to make out a case for the 'old' against the 'new'. The staging and the costumes, on the other hand, are apt, telling and to the point with an economy of means.

The gargantuan musical structure has some unwieldy longeurs, especially in the first act, but it is held together by the superb quality of performances. The audience's attention was kept focused, no mean achievement through a very long evening.

Pfitzner wrote this opera at a time when, unsurprisingly, even some members of the avant-garde retreated into a perceived stability of tried and tested 'traditional' forms. However, the expounding of conservative values as sanctioned by Heaven and to claim to have the angels aligned with this cause does not offer a reasoned or reasonable rejection of the 'new'. Indeed Silla, the caricature of the student entranced by 'scratchy sounds', is conveniently made to vanish to Florence (presumably to study with Schoenberg?). No real argument is possible, and it is no surprise that this kind of self-righteousness and maudlin self-pity proved to be fertile ground on which fascism could flourish.

Palestrina is unlikely to make it into the realms of the popular repertoire up and down this country. Yet, it is not easy to just dismiss this work. The tremendous artistic investment on every level of this production is compelling. It is difficult to imagine it being given a better chance of coming to life than with this production at the Royal Opera, steered with conviction by Christian Thielemann and cast from strength. Christianne Oelze and Sophie Koch are delightful as Palestrina's trousered son and pupil, and a roll call of names to conjure with supply the numerous quarrelsome clerics who caricature the workings of democracy, including Alan Titus as Morone and Kurt Rydl as Madruscht, who brings Act 2 to its end with a ruthless massacre, and finally in Act 3 the apotheosis of Palestrina/Pfitzner culminating with the appearance of Kurt Moll as Pope Pius IV.

Critical opinion has been polarised between Martin Anderson celebrating 'the extraordinary beauty and calm dignity' of the music of the outer acts in The Independent and Andrew Clements' unceremonious dismissal in The Guardian of its 'schoolmasterly cadences and rambling, unfocussed melodic lines' and Pfitzner's own 'bilious sense of injustice' at seeing himself 'passed over in favour of the new generation of modernists'. That doyen of opera critics, Rodney Milnes, appraises this revival in The Times, concluding that 'a performance of Pfitzner's opera as good as this - and it is by a long chalk the most convincing I have seen - is really rather worrying. You almost believe it is a great opera, which both instinct and reason tell you it isn't'.

Go and see for yourself. Make up your own mind while there is a chance.

Alexa Woolf

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