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Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975)
Ulisse: opera in a prologue and two acts (1968)

Claudio Desderi (Ulisse); Gwynn Cornell (Circe, Melanto); William Workman (Antinoo); Denise Boitard (Nausicaa); Stan Unruh (Demodocus, Tiresias); Schuyler Hamilton (Eumeo); Colette Herzog (Calypso, Penelope); Jean-Pierre Chevalier (Eurimaco); Louis Hagen-Williams (King Alcinous); Paul Guigue (Pisandre); Christopher Wells (Telemacus); Nicole Oxombre (Prima Ancella); Nicole Robin (Seconda Ancella); Marjorie Wright (Anticlea).
Chśur de Radio France
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Ernest Bour
Rec: "Grand Auditorium de Radio France", Paris, 6 May 1975
NAÏVE/RADIO FRANCE V4960 [2 CDs: 75:28+74:48]


This superbly packaged set taken from Radio France broadcast tapes is a model in disseminating significant broadcasts of the past; would that the BBC Legends series had the impulse to champion such repertoire, in such style.

Dallapiccola’s serial opera was first produced in Berlin in September 1968, conducted by Lorin Maazel but sung in German (a performance available on CD on Stradivarius STR 10063). It was mounted the following year by the BBC in London on Radio 3 (20 Sept 1969) when, Maazel brought many of the Berlin cast for a July pre-recording to sing in English with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though with three new names: Günther Reich as Ulysses, counter-tenor Paul Esswood as Telemacus (sung by a soprano at the first performance) and Gerald English as Tiresias and the blind bard Demodocus. The Berlin production was repeated at La Scala conducted by Georg Ratjen when one assumes it was sung in Italian. Some lucky readers may have come across the 1972 Italian Radio production conducted by Zoltán Peskó which was circulated on LP by RAI though never commercially distributed. In the late 1980s the BBC had another production, this time in Italian, conducted by Andrew Davis with Alan Opie as Ulysses, Phyllis Bryn-Julson as Calypso and Penelope and Sarah Walker as Circe, with a supporting cast of similar starry quality. This French Radio production is sung in Italian, but it has to be said that this is a work where understanding of the words is essential, and I have relied on the published vocal score (in Italian and English) in getting to grips with it.

As a serial epic it seems to me this complex music, which nevertheless has a jewel-like lustre and a quite beautiful surface allure, needs to be put over with a romantic freedom and strength of colour, though its intrinsic inclination to be hard-edged and crystalline works against that approach. I have not been able to hear the BBC’s first production but their performance from the 1980s was sung in virile full-blooded style. This fine Radio France production from 1975 has been little known to Dallapiccola’s British admirers, and it is good to be able to welcome it now. In assessing it I have been able to compare it with Stradivarius’s CDs of the first production and a tape of the BBC’s second broadcast; it is remarkably consistent.

Dallapiccola composed four sung works for the stage of which by far the most familiar is Il Prigioniero (Esa-Pekka Salonen with Swedish forces is on Sony SK68323; there was also once a Dorati version on Decca). The least performed is Job, subtitled ‘sacra rappresentazione’ (Hermann Scherchen’s reading from La Fenice in September 1964 is also on Stradivarius CD – STR 10043). I have never come across a recording of Dallapiccola’s pre-war first opera, Vole di Notte (Night Flight) after Saint-Exupéry, but it would be a natural for compact disc because of its simple set, the action being completely placed within the office of Rivière, the director of the night flying company. Here at its climax, in a touching preview of the final dénouement of Ulisse, the doomed pilot reports he has emerged into the starlit sky, Dallapiccola exploring his moment of ecstatic realisation as thirty years later he has Ulisse contemplate the infinite under the stars at the end of the opera under review. Dallapicccola also wrote an accessible 16-minute ballet, Marsia, which is on AS discs (AS 510), a live recording by no less than the New York Philharmonic conducted by Cantelli, a transcription from March 1954.

The producer André Muzeau chose the sympathetic conductor Ernest Bour for French Radio’s Ulisse in 1975. A celebrated interpreter of then modern music, Bour died in 2001, but encompassed a remarkably wide range, though specialising in more difficult twentieth century scores notably with his South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he reigned for nearly twenty years in the 1960s and 1970s. A pupil of Hermann Scherchen, who also championed Dallapiccola, Bour manages to integrate concerns for the structure with detail of the complex orchestration and the considerable demands on the voices, as well as the stage images. All in all it is remarkably well done, a master at work.

So many composers have seized on the character of Odysseus or Ulysses for operas, from Monterverdi to our own day, often centring on the female characters – Penelope and Nausicaa. My favourite is Britten’s The Rescue, not an opera but a radio melodrama, and, turned into a concert work by Chris de Souza as The Rescue of Penelope, available on CD. Almost all have been derived from Homer’s Odyssey, an epic that is universally familiar. But here Dallapiccola crafts his libretto through the filter of Dante, much less well known to an Anglo-Saxon audience, but giving us the central scene in Hades, where Ulisse unexpectedly encounters the ghost of his mother.

Not the least of Dallapiccola’s structural conceits is the palindromical form of the opera, which although ostensibly in a Prologue and two Acts, actually falls into 13 sections arranged in a symmetrical arch. At its centre comes Dallapiccola’s vision of Ulysses’s sojourn to the underworld. The whole is based on a related set of tone rows, which would need much close analytical study fully to identify; even so they give the music a very ’sixties surface, but also a remarkably beautiful quite luminous sound. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France respond with remarkable virtuosity to what, for the players, is difficult and ungrateful orchestral writing. Incidentally the composer’s orchestral work Three Questions with Two Answers (I have it by the BBCSO and Zoltán Peskó on LP - Italia ITL 70044) is thematically related to the orchestral music in the opera, very definitely a musical footnote. You might want to give it a spin while listening to the opera.

The Prologue, which is only scored for a chamber orchestra, consists of the first three scenes, and the story opens with the nymph Calypso, inconsolably sad as she looks out to sea – disconsolate that Ulysses has gone away. Poseidon calls up a brief orchestral storm and Ulisse is shipwrecked and cast on the shore of the island of the Phaeacians (the cover illustration for the vocal score), where he encounters Nausicaa and her maidservants.

Dallapiccola’s vocal writing is remarkably demanding and tends to have a jagged profile – enormous leaps often of difficult intervals and a very wide tessitura and a habit of asking for sudden extremely high notes to be sung pianissimo. The first two singers we hear – the rôles of Calypso and Nausicaa - have to play this trick, the first up to a top B-flat the second with repeated hits on top Ds or Cs, and generally these are supposed to be floated ppp. Although very good, in this performance, the late Colette Herzog as Calypso, and Gwynn Cornell as Nausicaa, do not give us quite what Dallapiccola asks for. Comparing with Annabelle Bernard as Calypso and Gatherine Gayer on Maazel’s version (and doubtless with the composer present) they give us a much cleaner almost bell-like hit on the high notes, but they still do not sing it quietly enough, though we have to remember they were in the theatre. The BBC’s studio team of Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Christine Whittlesey seem to get nearer to what is written in the score, though unfortunately that has never been issued commercially.

The first Act proper is set in the Court of Nausicaa’s father, King Alcinous, and in the great hall of his palace four celebrated episodes from Ulysses’ long journey are recounted to the assembled nobles. Each is separated by an interlude for chorus and orchestra. The Bard Demodocus sings of the heroes of the Trojan wars (lots of high Bs and As) and Ulysses hears the Bard describing himself; when the King notes that the stories have caused Ulisse to weep, his secret is out. During the first interlude the vocal score asks that the sound of two choirs be relayed through loudspeakers and spread around the auditorium making the distinction between ‘high in the dome’ – ‘low down in the auditorium on the left’ and on the right. This is not altogether apparent in a broadcast.

Ulysses tells stories about himself and implicitly about the women he has abandoned: the voluptuous lotus eaters, and Circe, the woman who gave him knowledge and hence a conscience (the moment of his parting, mirrors reflections of his inner self). Then to Hades where he meets the shade of his mother, whom he had fondly imagined was still waiting ‘safe upon our island’, but in fact is dead of a broken heart because her son has abandoned her. In a mood of passionate sadness Ulisse leaves the court to return to Ithaca, and Act II. His imminent conquest, Nausicaa, willingly lets him go – wouldn’t you? This is ideal music to get to grips with on CD as you do need to follow the words.

As Dallapiccola tells us in his commentary, this is a portrait of a man trying to find himself; of his search for a woman and his uncertainty about himself; about his abandoning of women. (To add to the resonances from beginning to end, there are three deliberate doublings which Dallapiccola asks for in his cast, and two of them are female: Circe/Melanto; Penelope/Calypso). Ulysses own uncertainty about his place in the worlds he visits is underlined when he arrives in Ithaca but is not recognised. Now we have the most familiar part of the story, the loutish suitors for his wife Penelope, and we have a British counter-tenor, Christopher Wells, as his son, Telemachus, strongly sung.

The suitors are contemptuous of the ragged stranger, but the prostitute Melantha – who entertains the suitors - begins to suspect something is up - she has ‘never seen eyes like that’. Here Dallapiccola does not achieve the immediate realistic drama that Britten and Sackville-West did in The Rescue, but it is a key moment. Ulysses kills the suitors to prove he is who he is, though Dallapiccola does make a big thing of it. But there is no reconciliation with Penelope (Colette Herzog, who earlier sang Calypso) and the opera ends (beautifully caught, this) with Ulisse’s great scena, as Ulisse at one with the sea and the stars is still questioning. He finally embraces his vision of God in his closing words: ‘All highest! No more alone are my heart and the sea’. In fact it is the sea – and hence the orchestra - which is the principal character of this opera, the sea upon which Ulysses has been carried round the known world and on which, at the end, we find our hero, alone beneath a sky of stars as he ponders the ultimate questions: ‘You stars: how many times, under how many skies have I watch’d you, and ponder’d your pure and tremulous beauty!’ It is with this soliloquy that the opera ends.

In the central rôle of Ulisse, the baritone Claudio Desderi, 32 when he recorded this, so very much in his prime, we find a singer who in a broadcast is able to explore Ulisse’s ambivalent character with some beautiful quiet singing. Desderi succeeds in creating the sense of quest, and he does not fall into the trap of making Ulisse too heroic. For me, in his final reverie under the stars he does not quite deliver the quiet beautiful high notes Dallapiccola seems to have wanted, and his sudden sprechstimme for ‘All-highest’ – ‘Signore!’ - fails to convey a man who has suddenly understood – the vocal score says ‘as if with sudden illumination’. This is notably different to Erik Saedén in the first performance, who managed to give Ulisse overtones of some serial Wotan, though for me preferable at the end. Perhaps Olan Opie for the BBC most successfully managed to embrace these disparate elements. Yet overall Desderi found a persuasive view of our hero and it is good that this recording has been made available for us all to enjoy. Once you have absorbed Dallapiccola’s sometimes elusive style, you will surely find this a fascinating characterisation.

While it is perfectly possible to run these CDs, mutter ho-hum and place them on a shelf, I have to emphasise that this is an incredibly complex work, and the many rewards which come from accessing it on CD with the vocal score and a commentary are well worth making the effort. I have spread this review over nearly three months. For those who speak Italian an 18 minute interview with Dallapiccola about the opera appears at the end of the Stradivarius CDs and may swing the balance that way if you only want one set, though the sound is far less refined. I would not have been able to write this review without the vocal score which I strongly recommend (Edition Suvini Zerboni of Milan – get it through your local public library). One small production quibble: from time to time we seem to hear a voice off-stage, could it be an inadvertent feed of the prompter? This is a fine performance of a notable monument of mid-twentieth century music; thanks to Naïve and Radio France for succeeding in doing what their British colleagues have failed to do and made it available to us.

Lewis Foreman


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