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Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975)
Il Prigioniero (1944-1948)
The Mother: Aile Asszonyi
The Prisoner: Markus Butter
The Jailer/The Grand Inquisitor: Manuel von Senden
First Priest: Roman Pichler
Second Priest: David McShane
Graz Opera Choir and Philharmonic Orchestra/Dirk Kaftan
rec. live, March 2017, Graz, Austria
Text and translation in Italian and German

I find Dallapiccola the most interesting Italian composer since Busoni (who was really more a German than an Italian composer). He had a difficult early life, marked by frequent moves because of political reasons. In his adult life he was briefly attracted, then strongly repelled, by Mussolini’s fascism, and during the war he had at times to go into hiding. It is perhaps not surprising that Il Prigioniero, his breakthrough work, concerns a prisoner of conscience.

Dallapiccola was greatly influenced by the Second Viennese School, particularly Berg and Webern. His music is always strongly lyrical, with a texture less rich than that of Berg and less pointilliste than Webern. He adopted serialism, but his music always sounds his own and not like that of the Austrians, and it is always beautiful to listen to.

Il Prigionero is a short one-act opera. It is based on a story by Villiers de L’isle-Adam whose title, La torture par l’Úsperance (torture by hope), sums up its theme. The place and time are not stated, but we can infer that it is the time of the Inquisition, and the Prisoner may be a religious rebel, though we are not told this. Neither he nor the other characters are named. We begin with the Mother, waiting to visit her son and haunted by a frightening dream. We then see the Prisoner in his cell, with his Mother there. The only person he is allowed to see is the Jailer. The Prisoner had once greeted him with the word Fratello (brother), and this touch of humanity has given the Prisoner hope. In the next scene the Jailer tells the Prisoner of successful risings against the Spanish rule in Flanders. There is a gleam of light through the door. Then we hear two Priests who have a discussion; one says that the prisoners will the next day be having the longest sleep. However, the Prisoner reaches the door which leads out. In the last scene he is in a garden, feels he has freedom at last, when he is clasped by the hands of the Grand Inquisitor, sung by the Jailer, who takes him off to the stake. The Prisoner has already said La Speranza…. l’ultima tortura; his last word is La libertÓ.

The situation will remind listeners of Beethoven’s Florestan in Fidelio, and Dallapiccola is careful to avoid any direct parallel. So there are no obvious arias but a continuous lyrical line, interspersed with religious phrases from an off-stage chorus. The orchestral writing nowhere risks drowning the voices, and the story moves along at a brisk pace. The work is easy to follow. It is not surprising that it won its composer an international audience.

The performance here is a live one from the opera house in Graz and is the third they have recorded in a series. I have to say I find Aile Asszonyi a little unsteady as the mother, while Markus Butter and Manuel von Senden as the Prisoner and the Jailer, doubling Grand Inquisitor, are firm and convincing. The orchestra clearly know the work. Dirk Kaftan leads a confident and moving performance. There are no extraneous noises, and applause has been removed.

The presentation is unusually generous for these days. The single disc comes in a box, with a booklet containing accounts of the work in both German and English. However, the text is given in the original Italian and a German translation but not one in English. Many readers will find this frustrating, so it is worth looking at the alternatives. There is a Dorati performance, which dates from 1974 and is now on the Eloquence label. Another is from Alan Gilbert, made in 2013. I have not heard these. Anyway, I think the main competition is from Esa-Pekka Salonen, who recorded the work in 1995. Singer for singer this is superior to the new version, with Phyllis Bryn-Julson in particular making much more of the role of the Mother, and the recording is little if at all inferior, despite its age. I should add that it also contains Dallapiccola’s Canti di Prigionia, a work closely linked to the opera. A further incentive is that it has texts in Italian and English. It is still available as a download, though you may have to hunt for a CD. This would be my preferred version. But in its own terms this new one is satisfying, if you can manage without an English translation.

Stephen Barber



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