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Ildebrando PIZZETTI (1880–1968)
Assassinio nella cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral) (1958)
Ruggero Raimondi (bass) – The Archbishop (Thomas Becket); Paoletta Marrocu; Sonia Zaramella – Leaders of the women’s chorus; Luca Casalin – A Herald; Saviero Fiore, Filippo Bettoschi; Elia Fabbian – Priests; Salvatore Cordella, Massimiliano Valleggi, Antonio De Gobbi; István Kovács – Knights; Massimo Polverari – The king; Fabrizio Bartolucci – Young Becket; Coro A.T.E.R.; Coro di voci bianche del Conservatorio Piccinni di Bari; Orchestra Sinfonica della Provincia di Bari/Piergiorgio Morandi
Stage director: Daniele D’Onofrio
Video director: Tiziano Mancini
Filmed in the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, 22 December 2006
Sound: LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround; Picture format: 16:9
DECCA 074 3253 [84:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The composer Ildebrando Pizzetti may be an unknown quantity for many readers, so I will give a brief biography. He belonged to the "Generation of 1880" along with Ottorino Respighi and Gian-Francesco Malipiero. They were the first important Italian figures for quite some time who were not primarily opera composers. Pizzetti’s early ambition was to become a playwright and he even had a couple of plays published before he turned wholeheartedly to composing. Like Respighi he had a lifelong interest in the early music of Italy, which is also reflected in his compositions, not least his choral works, which are possibly the part of his oeuvre by which he will be best remembered. His Messa di Requiem (1922) for a cappella choir is probably his masterpiece. It is, as is most of his music, rather stern and harsh, true melodies are rare but it has nonethe less an austere beauty as repeated listening sessions reveal. I first heard the Requiem at a concert some fifteen years ago and immediately bought the Chandos recording with the Danish Radio Choir under Stefan Parkman.

Pizzetti wrote large quantities of orchestral music, including a symphony in A (1940) and concertos for violin and for cello. His chamber music includes two strings quartets, a couple of piano trios, violin sonatas – the one in A championed by Yehudi Menuhin, He wrote quite a number of operas, the earliest, Sabina, as early as 1897. Assassinio nella Cattedrale was premiered at La Scala in 1958 with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as the Archbishop and Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting. It was a success then and so it was when Herbert von Karajan brought it to Vienna two years later with the great Hans Hotter in the central role. In Britain it was seen in Coventry in 1962, the same year as the world premiere of Britten’s War Requiem, but after that it mostly collected dust until the present production. The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari in southern Italy, is a cathedral founded in 1087 and so was a suitable place for the production. The real life murder of Thomas Becket occurred on 29 December 1170. The libretto is by the composer, adapted from Alberto Castelli’s Italian translation of the play by T.S. Eliot.

The cast-list is long but everything focuses on the Archbishop, so even though there is a lot of good to middling singing and acting in the minor roles only Thomas Becket is a really rounded character. And Ruggero Raimondi makes the most of the role. He is a remarkable singer who made his professional debut more than forty years ago and having sung all the great bass roles he has preserved his voice to a great extent. It has dried out a little but it is still a pliant instrument and his acting abilities have always been impressive. The recording is a bit variable and sometimes the voices become distant while the orchestra takes over. There are no arias but the Archbishop’s solos are held in an arioso that can be both expressive and beautiful. There is however another main character: the chorus. As I suggested earlier Pizzetti’s real forte is choral writing and the choral scenes here are truly magnificent. The massed voices function as the chorus in the Greek tragedies - as commentators to the action. T.S. Eliot had both these and the medieval mystery plays in mind – as well as the fifteenth century Everyman. This was my first contact with this work. There do exist broadcast tape from the La Scala premiere and also from the Vienna premiere (sung in German) but I don’t know if they have been available commercially. Anyway I believe that deeper acquaintance with the work may reveal a similar greatness as the Requiem did after a couple of listening sessions. That greatness lies, as I have said, primarily in the choral writing. Gregorian Chant was a central influence on Pizzetti here seasoned with his personal rugged harmonies. The choruses radiate a strange beauty.

The Basilica di San Nicola is ideal visually with its beautiful altar paintings. Since this was filmed during a single performance – with some close-ups of the Archbishop probably shot separately – there is a rare sense of event and continuity.

There will presumably not be another production of this work in the foreseeable future. We have to be grateful to Decca for making this harsh but fascinating opera available for the general opera public. It is also a worthy tribute to the artistry of Ruggero Raimondi, who must have learnt the role specifically for this performance.

Göran Forsling




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