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Respighi’s Maria Egiziaca

A Story of Redemption

The early Christian legend of Maria Egiziaca (Mary of Egypt) has been passed down in various forms and used in various literary works, the first, 6th century, stories being of Levantine origin. Mary of Egypt has also been a favourite subject for painters - perhaps, the best known being the Trecento painter known as The Master of the Victory of Death, whose main work (formerly known as the Danse macabre, which inspired Liszt s work for piano and orchestra of the same name) is in the Camposanto in Pisa. Interestingly, Nicolas Benois, who designed the sets for the world premiere of Respighi’s opera in New York used this Pisa painting as the centrepiece of his design.

Respighi’s initial idea, in 1929, was to write a concert opera based on the legend with a winged altar-piece as the set on the concert stage, and that the singers could step out from behind it in costume. Respighi’s librettist Claudio Guastalla (1880- 1948) saw this idea as a revival of the medieval genre of Sacra Rappresentazione, in which priests and clerks performed the stories of the various feasts, particularly Easter, using histrionic means with a musical accompaniment. The first performance of Maria Egiziaca took place in New York’s Carnegie Hall (see Adriano’s lead article on page 1). There were a number of successful performances in Italy and in Venice the work took to the stage for the first time with Benois’ set blown up to stage size. Sadly, Maria Egiziaca slowly disappeared from the repertoire after Respighi’s death in 1936. Two recordings of the work exist and the remainder of this article will embrace reviews of them as the work is discussed further.

The Two recordings are:

The Lamberto Gardelli (1989) on Hungaroton HCI:) 31118 with Veronika Kincses (soprano) as Maria; Janos B. Nagy (tenor) as the sailor and the leper; and Lajos Miller (bar.) as Pilgrim and Abbot Zozimus with the Choir of the Hungarian Radio and Television and the Hungarian State Orchestra

The Ottavio Ziino recording first issued on LP, and now reissued on CD by Bongiovani GL 2008-2. It features Javora Stoilova (soprano) as Maria; Nazzareno Antinori (tenor)as the sailor and Carlo Desideri (bar.) as Pilgrim with the Orchestra and Choir of the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia. (A live performance at the 1980 Respighi Festival in Assisi.)

There are three scenes following the illustrations of the on-stage triptych linked by two interludes. In Maria Egaziaca, Respighi seeks the simplicity of the medieval style of the Sacra Rappresentazione with music that includes several monophonic textures of the kind known as organum (the first, medieval form in which polyphony appeared, based on plainsong harmonised by the addition of more parts - what, today, one would term, chordal parallels or mixtures). Appropriately, Respighi includes melodies written in the Gregorian spirit. But the music is multi-layered and one can also detect influences of modern composers particularly Richard Strauss.

Act I opens as two angels open the doors of the triptych to quiet reverential music. Ziino uses a smaller ensemble than Gardelli, possibly seeking greater simplicity but his reading fails to ignite or convey any real emotional depth. Generally speaking, Ziino’s instrumental ensemble sounds thin; sometimes ensemble and intonation are suspect, the recording balance feels uneasy and, furthermore, on-stage noises and coughing etc are disconcerting. Gardelli’s orchestra is more polished and convincing. Act I commences with Maria sitting on a low bollard on the Alexandria quayside chatting to a rather melancholy, unsettled sailor. She expresses a desire for adventure in far-off lands. The music in this first section is quite colourful and impressionistic as allusions are made to voyages under the stars and to far-off loves and sirens. A pilgrim enters and Maria asks him if she could seek passage on the ship. He replies in the affirmative - if she can pay the fare but he is outraged when she suggests paying with her favours. Maria’s part of their dialogue is accompanied by harpsichord only until her suggested payment, when the orchestra is used. More and more voluptuous music, reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Salome is introduced as Maria warms to her theme to persuade the sailors to accept her terms. The singers on both albums are very good. Both tenors are confident and expressive as the sailor with Nagy, perhaps, sounding just that bit more appropriately youthful. Both Marias impress with Kincses having the dramatic edge. Pilgrim, with awesome and majestic ecclesiastical music, goes to the oaken-voiced, splendidly dignified Desideri (but Miller too impresses).

The first intermezzo is descriptive of the voyage with bracing sea music interspersed with the Salome figures heard earlier and, later, more dramatic material suggesting Maria’s on-board depravity, before the music calms down to a more pastoral atmosphere as the voyage ends and the scene of Act Il shifts to Jerusalem. Again, Gardelli scores much more heavily. Act II, again diverging slightly from the legend, has Maria arriving at the church behind a leper and a pauper. She has been guided by a blind woman to whom she has given bread. When Maria tries to enter the church, she is barred by Pilgrim. Maria remonstrates with him in a long aria in which she expresses first her disdain for him then an aching desire to know his God followed by shock and rapture as the Angel appears, and her repentance of her many sins. The Angel tells her to seek purification in the hermit’s cave beyond the holy river and the choir’s singing brings the Act to a close as Maria runs into the church. The highlight of Act II - and the whole work - is Maria’s challenging, marathon aria in which her emotions range from defiant outrage at Pilgrim’s censure to fright and awe on seeing the Angel, and to humble supplication and repentance. Both soloists impress but Kincses is the more comfortable while Stoilova shows more contrast between her early fiery defiance and her subsequent purity of supplication, but she is not helped by the thin accompaniment. The central part of this aria just after Maria sees the Angel, ‘O white falcon, Angel of the Lord, you who grip my heart...’ is deeply moving and top-drawer Respighi. The Gardelli recording rounds off this aria with a much purer Angel and a most beautiful chorus (O crux, ava spes unica!...) whereas the Ziino Angel (Joung-Mi Kim) sounds too much like Stoilova so one might not even be aware of her entrance and the chorus is weak.

The second intermezzo continues after the end of Act II without a break in the music. The ‘O Crux. . . ‘ chorus giving way to another graphic orchestral account of the events that follow - i.e. Maria prostrating herself before the Cross, leaving the City and taking Holy Communion in the church by the Jordan in which she is baptised before proceeding into seclusion in the desert. Gardelli again wins hands down in communicating Maria’s new piety, the washing away of her sins (subtle allusions again to Strauss) and her heavy, remorseful tread into the wilderness. Act III opens with the Abbott Zozimus (the same Pilgrim we met in Acts I and II) emerging from his cave to see the lion has dug a pit. Zozimus thinks it is his grave. A bent old woman appears with her long hair covering her nakedness. It is Maria. She asks Zozimus to cover her and tells him that the pit is her grave. She asks him to remember her and to give her final absolution. Recognising that her face "already mirrors the light of Paradise" he does so and the opera closes with an ecstatic duet in praise of the Lord in which they are joined by a chorus of Angels and the curtain falls as the doors of the triptych slowly close. In the Ziino recording, Zozimus is sung by a different baritone, Marcello Giordano. He and Stoilova deliver a rapturous duet but they are eclipsed by the intensity of Miller and Kincses and Gardelli’s fuller, richer accompaniment that more successfully communicates divine mysticism.

The Gardelli recording has to be my recommendation but I sense that a definitive recording of the work is still to be achieved

Ian Lace

 

 


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