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Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975)
Il Prigioniero (1944-48) [43:10]
Prima Serie del Cori di Michelangeli Buonarotti Il Giovane (1933) [9:09]
Estate: Frammento di Alceo (1932) [3:17]
Anna Maria Chiuri, mezzo (La madre) – Michael Nagy, baritone (Il prigioniero)
Stephen Rügamer, tenor (Il carceriere/Il grande inquisitor) – Adam Riis, tenor (Primo sacerdote)
Steffen Braun, bass (Seconde sacredote)]
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Ginandrea Noseda.
rec. 2019, Koncertsalen, DR Koncerthset, Copenhagen
All sung texts and English translations included.

It is fascinating (though it is a fascination I shall largely resist here) to trace in detail Dallapiccola’s handling of the literary sources which lie behind his opera Il Prigioniero (clearly the major work on this thoroughly impressive disc). Dallapiccola drew, chiefly, on two nineteenth century texts: a story by Villiers de Lisle-Adams, ‘La Torture par l’espérance’ from his Nouveaux contes cruels (1888), and a novel La Légende d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak (1868) by Charles De Coster. Other sources used less extensively, but importantly, include a poem by Victor Hugo, ‘La rose de l’infante’. But I don’t intend to spend any time on the considerable skill with which Dallapiccola created his libretto (of composers who have written their own libretti, Dallapiccola was surely one of the most talented), since to do so would run the risk of implying – however unintentionally – that Dallapiccola’s response to the problems of liberty, persecution and imprisonment was ‘bookish’, whereas his desire to produce an opera on these and related issues was, above all, deeply rooted in two key episodes in his own life.

The first of these important – perhaps one should say formative – episodes occurred in his childhood. Dallapiccola began studying music relatively early, starting piano aged eight and studying composition from the age of 10. His father was a classical scholar and headmaster of an Italian-language school in Pisano in Istria (now Pazin in Croatia), which was then under Austrian control. In 1917 during the First World War, the Austrians took the view that Luigi’s father constituted some kind of political subversive and the whole family was interned in Graz for twenty months. The young Luigi then had no access to musical lessons or even a piano, and food was often short, though he was, oddly enough, able to attend some performances in the city’s opera house. It was only with the end of the war that the family was able to move back to Pisano. This experience of internment rooted itself deeply in the psyche of the future composer, though he claims not to have been fully aware of this until a conversation with Igor Markevitch: “A few days after the world premiere of my opera Il Prigioniero on the Italian radio [this premiere took place on December 1, 1949] I happened to dine in the company of Igor Markevitch […] Markevitch asked me[…]exactly what the secret reasons were that, for such a long time, had compelled me to be concerned with prisoners and prisons”. “It suddenly occurred to me for the very first time that I had worked on the Canti di prigionia from 1938 to 1941 and that Il Prigioniero had occupied me from 1944 to 1948” (both quotations are taken from ‘The Genesis of the Canti di Prigionia and Il Prigioniero’: An Autobiographical Fragment’ by Luigi Dallapiccola and Jonathan Schiller, The Musical Quarterly, 39:3, July 1953, pp.355-372.).

In the article just cited, Dallapiccola discusses the impact which the period of internment had upon him. The years leading up to the Second World War affected the mature Dallapiccola in not unrelated ways. To paraphrase complicated events briefly: in April 1938 Dallapiccola married Laura Coen Luzzatto, a Jewish librarian in Florence. Later in the same year, under German influence, Mussolini published a so-called ‘Manifesto of the Race’, declaring that Italians were Aryans while Jews were not, and that intermarriage between Aryans and Non-Aryans was forbidden. Dallapiccola and his wife were forced into hiding, sometimes together, sometimes in different locations. Questions of persecution, whether for race or ideas were not, then, purely ‘intellectual’ questions for Dallapiccola.

In the same ‘autobiographical fragment’ from which I have already quoted, Dallapiccola writes (p.366) “Between 1942 and 1943 […] It became increasingly clear to me that I should write an opera which, in spite of its background and historical setting, could be both moving and timely; a work that would portray the tragedy of our times and the tragedy of persecution felt and suffered by millions of individuals.” - “Moving and timely”? Il Prigioniero was certainly that in 1949. Sadly, it remains so now. By refusing to concern himself with the “incongruities of the fascists in any country” (ibid.) Dallapiccola ensured the universality (in both time and space) of his opera.

I have seen only two productions of Il Prigioniero. One, a good few years ago, was a well-intentioned amateur/student production in Bologna, for which I happened to see a poster as I wandered from museum to museum. Sadly, the ambition of those who put on the production wasn’t matched by either their resources or their abilities, though something of the work’s power survived. The other was, in 2019, a production by Welsh National Opera, part of a season around the theme of Freedom. It was directed by Sir David Pountney in a double-bill with Act II of Fidelio. Naturally, it was a much more ‘professional’ production – in every sense of the word – than the one I had seen in Bologna. But, in truth, Il Prigioniero is an opera well capable of making an impact when only heard, as it certainly does in this fine recording. After all, what one might call the most important ‘presence’ in the narrative, that of Philip II, remains unseen, even in the theatre.

Philip II is the broodingly threatening, all-observing presence, under whose eyes all actions are taken. Dallapiccola’s conception of the character goes back to Hugo’s poem mentioned earlier. To quote Dallapiccola himself again, reflecting on having been first introduced to the poem in 1919 – “I can say that from that day, the idea of Philip II hovering menacingly over mankind has not left my consciousness. […] I want only to say that if, in 1919 […] I mentally identified Philip with the petty tyrants of the House of Hapsburg, I connected him later on with other, more terrible figures” (Musical Quarterly, 39:3, July 1953, p.362).

In the Prologue of Il Prigioniero the Prisoner’s Mother has a vision of Philip, of whom she says “Non sugli uomini impera, / ma sopra un cimitero” (He rules, not men / but a cemetery). She identifies him as “Filippo, Il Gufo, figlio dell’Avvoltoio” (Philip, the Owl, son of a Vulture). Philp is, literally and metaphorically, the governing presence of Dallapiccola’s opera, of whom figures such as the Jailer and the Grand Inquisitor are only lesser agents – as the Gestapo were of Hitler, and the OVRA of Mussolini. Philip’s ‘invisibility’ is a fundamental dimension of his power. We know of Philip’s supervising existence, while we hear the mind and the heart of the Prisoner being played on with horrible charm by the Jailer in Scene 2 (Stephen Rügamer is insidiously effective here) giving ‘hope’ to the Prisoner, a Flemish freedom fighter, with false stories of how successful the Flemish rebels have been in their fight against their Spanish overlords.

The casting of the opera is impressive throughout this recording. Anna Maria Chiuri is an impassioned Mother, balancing political fervour and maternal concern; Michael Nagy is a very convincing prisoner, his voice expressing and ‘recording’, like some sort of scientific instrument, the fluctuations of his emotions. It is impossible not to identify with his hopes and his fears. The lesser roles are all handled well. (It is an important dimension of Dallapiccola’s libretto that no one in the narrative is identified by a personal name).

We know from two earlier Chandos discs (review ~ review) that Ginandrea Noseda is an absolute master - perhaps the current master - of Dallapiccola’s orchestral writing. Noseda is entirely at ease both with Dallapiccola’s distinctively Italian brand of serialism and with his more tonal episodes. And so too, under his direction, are the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, who give a fully committed performance which perfectly balances the demands of precision and emotional intensity. The recorded sound is excellent throughout – I find the way in which the recording handles the ‘off-stage’ choir especially effective.

After the visceral drama of Il Prigioniero – please note I refer to the drama of the work, not to its music when using the word ‘visceral’ - it is good to be able to turn, by way of contrast, to the two pieces contained on the remainder of this SACD. Although there is less emotional intensity here, the level of performance remains high. In terms of mood, the two settings of poems by Michelangelo Buonarotti il Giovane (1568-1646) – great-nephew of the more famous Michelangelo – are about as different from Il Prigioniero as could be imagined. The texts were written as lyrics to be sung in a play by Niccolň Arrighetti; one, ‘Il coro delle Malmaritate’ (The Chorus of the Ill-Married Women) advises young women to learn from the errors that the married singers have made, to choose life as a nun, however hard, instead of marriage; the other, ‘Il Coro di Malammogliati’ (The Chorus of the Ill-Married Men) symmetrically warns young men about how quickly they will come to regret marriage – whoever takes a wife “Will see in two days/A hellish devil,/Whose head has no wisdom” runs the refrain of the poem. The texts are full of traditional motifs from the medieval and Renaissance débat on marriage – presented in a form which neither the poet, nor the composer (some three hundred years later), took very seriously. These were the first of six settings of texts by Michelangelo Il Giovane which Dalapiccola made. These two are examples of a kind of Italian neo-classicism, the revival of the Italian madrigal tradition, as also attempted by composers such as Pizzetti and Malipiero. Each of these two cori is well-made and pleasant; the attention to textual detail being characteristic of Dallapiccola’s considerable intelligence and the transitions between homophony and counterpoint well-judged and astutely handled. In the context of this SACD, one’s pleasure in these pieces is enhanced by the contrast with the harrowing emotions and intellectual demands of Il Prigioniero.

The year before Dallapiccola set those two texts by Michelangelo il Giovane, he had set, as ‘Estate’ (Summer) an Italian translation by Ettore Romagnoli (1871-1938) of a poem by a poet from Lesbos, Alcaeus of Mytilene; His precise dates are unknown – but he was probably born c. 625/620 BCE and died around 580 BCE. The poem set by Dallapiccola presents summer in terms of its oppressive heat, a time of parching thirst. The poet encourages the hearer to “soak his mouth” with wine, as the cicadas make their music and the sun’s ferocity sets the world ‘ablaze’. This is the time, says Alcaeus, when women are most passionate and men are most exhausted. While ‘Il coro delle Malmaritate’ and ‘Il Coro di Malammogliati’ are scored for a choir of mixed voices, ‘Estate’ is written for male voices only. It responds to both the robustness and delicacy of Alcaeus’ poem. The setting begins in a forcefully modal fashion before becoming markedly chromatic. The setting captures strikingly the text’s imagery of oppressive heat. Both works are well and perceptively sung.

This recording of Il Prigioniero seems to me to be the best that we now have, and perhaps the best we are likely to have for some years. Its only serious rival is the recording directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony, which I don’t have to hand for detailed comparison, but which doesn’t seem, to me, to have, overall, the absolute perfection of idiom that Noseda’s reading has. Though Salonen’s pairing of this remarkable opera with the Canti di prigionia has the obvious attraction of thematic unity, I actually find that Noseda’s less obvious choice of pairings, the Prima Serie del Cori di Michelangeli Buonarotti Il Giovane and Estate, actually serves to throw a brighter light on the towering nature (for all its relative brevity, in operatic terms) of Il Prigioniero.

Looking up a piece on Dallapiccola by Roger Sessions, written at the time of Dallapiccola’s death, I was struck by how forcefully this disc confirms two of the observations then made by Sessions, who knew Dallapiccola personally (my quotations are taken from the text printed in Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays, ed. E.T.Cone, 1979) – “No composer of the twentieth century has written for the voice with greater eloquence, or with greater appreciation of its resources, than he”, writes Sessions, adding “He was devoted to the cause of human liberty, both on the individual and on the political level”. These judgements, with which I happily concur, are powerfully justified by this superb SACD.

Glyn Pursglove

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