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LUCREZIA - The story of Respighi’s last opera

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Lucrezia was Respighi’s last opera, this article charts the progress of its composition and Respighi’s last illness through to his untimely death on April 18th 1936. He was not yet 57.

The material below is a slight abridgement of writings in the final chapters of Elsa Respighi’s Ottorino Respighi - His Life-Story, published by Ricordi.

The support of Elsa Respighi

My quotations begin when Elsa’s book reaches the chapter dealing with the years 1934-35. On page 149 is quoted material from Claudio Guastalla’s (one of Respighi’s librettists) Notebooks:- ‘All artists - I believe - need the reassurance of a sincere opinion. Respighi had the singular good fortune to have a wife who was also a highly intelligent adviser, a woman of rapid intuition who could be brutally frank.

‘Elsa was Respighi’s inspiration and champion, his comfort and spur. And Respighi often sorely needed the last two comfort because of his bouts of acute depression - a spur, to rouse him from his occasional fits of laziness...Respighi was an excellent artist, but a simple good-natured man, reflective and sometimes a little indolent...shy, easily discouraged and readily influenced...

‘Working with a man like me could have been harmful to Respighi because unfortunately I tend to be full of doubts, sceptical, often depressed and sometimes depressing, naturally inclined more to reflection than action. . . Without [Elsa’s] vigorous encouragement I would never have written the librettos of La Fiamma and Lucrezia and Respighi would never have composed the music.

The onset of the final illness

Elsa writes:- ‘Just before 10th April (1935) we were off to Budapest for the Hungarian premiere of La Fiamma. During the journey from Rome, Respighi complained of a very sore throat so, on arrival in Budapest, I asked that he should see a specialist. The Maestro returned to the hotel with a feverish temperature and could swallow nothing. The doctor who came soon after told me that he had an oedema of the epiglottis and an urgent operation would probably be necessary to prevent him from choking to death. For the time being, he was given medicine and fortunately, despite a constantly high temperature, the swelling abated thus averting an operation.

‘My anxiety seemed to be out of all proportion to his illness but it was really a presentiment of impending tragedy. The throat infection for some time curiously affected Respighi’s hearing. I recall the day he came to the theatre for the dress rehearsal. As soon as the orchestra began to play he leapt to his feet as if to leave the box, exclaiming, "But can’t you hear that they are all out of tune?" I looked at him dumbfounded - the orchestra was perfectly in tune. What was the matter with Respighi? The Maestro looked bewildered. Suddenly he put the palm of his hand first over one ear and then over the other, listening as he did so. "There’ s a difference of a semitone when I listen with this ear," he said. For days life was sheer torture for him. I remember his distress during a reception when all the noisy chatter prevented him from hearing what people were saying to him. He returned home exhausted and terribly downcast - he feared he was going deaf.

‘It is possible that the oedema was the beginning of the trouble because from then on the Maestro had little capacity for work or any other activity.

‘From 20th-30th May we were at Modena for performances of Orfeo. Respighi conducted, but during rehearsals showed obvious signs of fatigue and repeatedly complained of headaches.’

The beginning of work on Lucrezia (May to July 1935)

Elsa reports that ‘From May to July, Guastalla wrote the libretto of Lucrezia (after months of discussion) and from July to 20th August Respighi cancelling his trip to Los Angeles where he had been booked to give some concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, stayed at ‘The Pines’ and almost completed the composition of the opera. He had frequent headaches and tired easily so before beginning the full score, he decided to take a rest.’

Fatal Dentistry (?)

Elsa remembers - ‘One night in September Ottorino was seized by a violent fit of shivering which alarmed me very much. He reassured me that it was sometimes brought on by sudden contact with cold sheets and soon passed [they were away from home visiting]. In Rome again, the Maestro went for treatment to a dentist. One day, I had taken him to the surgery and was waiting in the car when he came out rather upset and said, "A peculiar thing happened - the doctor had given me an injection before taking out the tooth and all at once I felt a mad impulse to escape. I actually got out of the chair but the dentist warned me that the tooth would have to come out, otherwise it would ache even more after the injection. It was just as well that I stayed because at the base of the root there were little sacs of pus that might have caused infection." Who knows? If he had obeyed the urge to run away perhaps the microbe would not have invaded the circulation, for in all probability the infection was due to the extraction of that tooth. And yet I am still inclined to believe the virus entered the bloodstream as a direct result of the oedema on the epiglottis which he had at Budapest.

Work continues on Lucrezia

‘Respighi toiled on painfully at the composition of Lucrezia, simultaneously preparing the full score. It seemed a brave struggle against fatigue and I begged him in vain to rest for a few days. ‘I want to finish it,’ he replied. ‘I want to finish it.’

From Guastalla’s Notebooks: - ‘Respighi had chosen the tragic story of Lucrezia after Shakespeare’s poem. The Rape of Lucrezia and another dramatic poem that it inspired by a modern French writer whose name I cannot recall ... Although the original idea for Lucrezia had come from Shakespeare, I preferred to disregard his poem and faithfully follow Livy’s account which I found so powerful and dramatic that at times one had to be careful not to spoil it in translation...

Maria Egiziaca was more successful on the stage than in a concert hall, so we thought to give her a sister and complete the evening with a ballet (The Birds, for example, which soared to greater popularity than we had originally hoped). As we were aiming at an architectural scheme, the two one-act operas had to be respectively architectural and pictorial un conception, of approximately the same duration with the same number of characters, the same voices, so that we could use the same artists in both... I derived great satisfaction from the two characters, equally diverse and exemplary - the one for her faith [Maria Egiziaca], the other for her austere chastity [Lucrezia].... I took longer to write the libretto than Respighi did over the music. In July or August I delivered, scene by scene and by the autumn the opera was completed. He strove for the utmost simplicity, stripping his music of all inessentials, reducing the orchestra to a minimum and showing what could be achieved with the strictest economy of means. I know that accomplished musicians like Marinuzzi and Serafin, when they came to conduct the posthumous Lucrezia, were dubious of the effectiveness in performance of certain lightly-scored passages but eventually accepted the situation. Marinuzzi, believing that a section had been orchestrated by Elsa and not by Respighi, remarked sharply, "This must be reinforced a little, otherwise it won’t be heard." To which Elsa retorted "The scoring is the Maestro’s and cannot be touched". It is well known that although Lucrezia had been completed, probably in its definitive form, 29 pages remained to be orchestrated when Respighi fell ill. The opera written, Respighi began to orchestrate it with customary speed. The work was nearing completion but he felt dissatisfied with Lucrezia’s closing music ‘Non son piu quella di ieri’ and decided to rewrite it. He set it aside for the moment and continued with the orchestration. He then rewrote Lucrezia’s final pages but his illness prevented him from finishing the scoring. In the end he left the opera completely orchestrated apart from a few bars of the finale and the passage he set in two versions - the one he rejected, the other presumably definitive. No one knows whether he was indeed satisfied with the second attempt but he certainly told me during the first month of his fever, "Another two days’ work and I could have sent the full score to Ricordi." At that moment he undoubtedly thought of the opera as completed.’

Respighi’s Final Months (January - April 1936), and Elsa’s completion of Lucrezia

Elsa wrote that Respighi took to bed with a slight temperature in the New Year but she had a presentiment that the end was drawing closer. She pleaded with the doctors to carry out blood tests. ‘They gave the cruel verdict in these words: ‘It’s a slow viridans endocarditis. Unfortunately we know of no cure for this condition." For weeks Elsa bravely kept up a pretence of cheerfulness, an act she also imposed on any visitors. Ottorino was given blood transfusions. Elsa writes, ‘From the beginning he ate reluctantly and in the last weeks had a complete aversion to food. One day when he was delirious he said to me, "I really cannot eat this French quartet." In his sick mind the feeling of revulsion to food became confused with an obsession for music which affected him terribly during the early stages of his illness. "If only this endless jumble of music in my brain would stop", he would exclaim in desperation.

The disease grew relentlessly worse. Every day, in the early afternoon he had violent shivering fits which could last as long as an hour, and then came wildly fluctuating temperatures and each crisis left the Maestro in a state of extreme prostration. He began to feel the cold hand of death.

However, as Elsa relates, ‘during the early days of his illness he often talked about Lucrezia and how he wanted it produced, then, all at once, he stopped mentioning it and when I tried to raise the subject he became annoyed. Another time he turned his old alarm clock which he had had for years towards the wall and refused to look at it. Day by day he seemed more detached from everything and everybody. He was silent and infinitely sad.

Guastalla takes up the story (from Notebooks), ‘At dawn on 18th April Respighi breathed his last. . . l am at a loss to know where Elsa found the strength to nurse day and night a patient as difficult as a child who would never allow her from his side. How much was she to be admired for the way she pretended always to be calm and optimistic in order to hide her profound grief. When Elsa went downstairs on some errand or other, she could relax in despair but on the way up again she had to rouge her face, hum a tune and smile.

Elsa decided to complete the 29 pages of score herself, a task she accomplished with loving care. But what would have been a couple of days’ work for Respighi took Elsa two harassed months. Of course her orchestration was not what Respighi’s would have been, for he was always changing and refining his style. But in those pages there is not a bar that is not essentially true to Respighi. Every chord has its justification in the Maestro’s previous compositions, always bearing in mind that his art was constantly moving towards a simple perfection. Elsa’s dedicated efforts were rewarded by the admission on the part of highly expert judges like De Sabata that it was impossible to distinguish the few pages of imitative scoring from the rest of the work."’


Lucrezia - The production and plot

The following description is taken from Adriano’s notes for the 1994 Marco Polo recording of Lucrezia (8.223717).

In the summer of 1935, while dealing with operatic projects on King Lear and Macbeth, Respighi read Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece. After consulting Livy s Histories, the original source of this edifying Roman legend, he tumed to Andre Obey s play Le viol de Lucrece (1931), which made a particular impression on him, since it makes use of two Recitants who comment on the action, in the manner of a Greek chorus. In Respighi s own operatic version these parts would be united into one La Voce, a dramatic mezzo-soprano, and sung from the orchestra pit. With this idea in mind, the composer approached his librettist.

Once again Claudio Guastalla, who had previously prepared the libretti of Respighi s operas Belfagor, La campana sommersa, La fiamma and Maria Egiziaca, and of his ballet Belkis, regina di Saba, embarked on the collaboration, not without moments of disagreement. Both parties had strong ideas and the fact that a Roman legend had to be set to music, while avoiding some dangerous pseudo-archaisms in the text and the extravert nature of the orchestral writing displayed in the earlier trilogy of Roman tone-poems, caused many discussions.

Obey’s play had been written for a Paris actors group of fifteen, called ‘La Compagnie des Quinze’ now a full play of four acts had to be transformed into a sixty minute one-act opera and the concern of both composer and librettist was not only to reduce a great deal of secondary dialogue, of soldiers, servants and townspeople, but also to tighten the part of the two Recitants, who seem to us today to be unduly prolix. Guastalla’s adaptation is very intelligent and has, obviously, more Latin flavour in its text.

The short score of Lucrezia was completed within two months. In the autumn of 1935 Respighi began the orchestration, while at the same time working on an arrangement of Francesco Cavalli’s Medea. Negotiations with the Teatro alla Scala led to the scheduling of Lucrezia and Medea in a double-bill production for the 1936-37 season.

The first performance of the work at the Teatro all Scala on 24th February 1937, under the baton of Gino Marinuzzi and with Maria Caniglia as Lucrezia and Ebe Stignani as La Voce, was coupled with Respighi’s Maria Egiziaca and a choreographic version of his orchestral suite Gli Ucceli [The Birds]. These last two works took the place of the unfinished Medea. Shortly afterwards, the same production was mounted at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the same conductor, and at the Roman Teatro Reale dell’Opera under Tullio Serafin. Caniglia was to sing Lucrezia again, and for the last time, in a Turin broadcast of 1938. In the 1960s it was Anna de Cavalieri who revived this part on stage and on the radio in unforgettable dramatic renderings. As for the part of La Voce, this was to be displayed with all its difficult and varied characteristics by great mezzos such as Fedora Barbieri, Miriam Pirazzini and Oralia Dominguez.

Although scored for an ensemble of normal symphonic dimensions (piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings) the Respighis considered Lucrezia as a work for "chamber orchestra", not only because it appears to be on a smaller scale, orchestrally, than Feste Romane ( 1928), La fiamma (1933) and Belkis, regina di Saba (1934) but also because its musical language is more simple and straightforward. With Lucrezia the composer has conceived music reduced to a minimum of effects and sounding throughout as an almost unitary accompaniment. A few leitmotifs are to be found in the score, a short "Roman" fanfare, a "riding" motif, Tarquinio’s ‘erotic" theme and the "household" theme in the central episode. In the three short but very intense orchestral interludes (opening the soldiers’ scene, and concluding both the rape and Lucrezia’s suicide)’ although they sound heavier, through many doublings of instruments, the musical material is still relatively sober, realisable through perusal of the vocal score.’ Adriano goes on to discuss the complexity of from a stylistic point of view. Lucrezia appears to be mainly a homage to the earlier influences in Respighi’s career and Monteverdi in particularly is cited. Yet the influence of Richard Strauss is present too particularly in that part of the opera associated with the eroticism of Tarquinio, ‘reaching a brutal climax in the interlude suggesting the rape’. Adriano also points out influences of Verdi and Puccini; and music ‘not without a certain Russian flavour (for music of the second ‘women’s tableau’), a trait of many of Respighi’s youthful symphonic works, while the three women are singing together, but [the music] turns to a baroque mood of great beauty when Lucrezia subsequently remains alone.’

‘Fortunately these foreign influences in Respighi’s opera do not cloud its beauty and lyric power and the unmistakable personal style of the composer, There is enough musical impact to reach even symphonic dimensions and there is no moment where the tension begins to flag. In this very interesting and original short opera we can but approve Respighi’s definite return to a neo-classical form of music drama in which the singing parts become predominant and melody, whether recitativo, psalmody, arioso, or simple song, is supported by discreet and transparent accompaniment.

Even though, in some of her fiery outbursts, the hieratic character of a Greek chorus is surpassed, La Voce emotionally experiences each situation in the play, from the first scene of the nocturnal ride to her cries of "Vile!" at the climax, the rape and "A Roma!" at the very end. Occasionally she returns to moments of restrained fear and silent warning. To emphasise her passionate involvement, Respighi inserted her strongly felt cries at the most critical moments of the drama, even interrupting or taking over the protagonist’s vocal line. The part of La Voce is one requiring particularly dramatic and varied vocal colouring. The composer’s apparent homage to Monteverdi should not always be taken as reliable, particularly at the moment of Tarquinio’s arrival, where La Voce too is infatuated by the erotic aura of the prince and succumbs to Straussian lyricism.

In comparison Lucrezia and the other leading characters of the opera appear more static and stylistically more "contemporary", which means that they are the offspring of a few more centuries of Italian bel canto tradition. It may be asked why Lucrezia’s husband Collatino has a smaller singing part than Bruto, who himself is allowed an arietta and a very effective declamatory recitative in the finale (and also shows a stronger development of character). Tarquinio, on the other hand, seems not to need an aria as well, since a tremendous duet with Lucrezia awaits him, giving him splendid opportunity to follow in the steps of Scarpia, not excluding also the lyric aspects of this role. Lucrezia who sings about half of the music of the opera, has a part that makes great technical demands, especially at the end, where many lirico-spinto sopranos would find it almost impossible. Respighi conceived the role for the soprano Maria Caniglia, after admiring her in a successful interpretation of Maria Egiziaca in 1932.

Ronald Duncan was to provide the plot of Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucrezia in which the parts of the Recitants remained shared between two singers, a soprano and a tenor. As Livy tells us it was the violent death of Lucrezia that led the people to rise against the tyranny of the Tarquins and banish them from Rome, after the body of the martyr to chastity had been carried through the streets of the City. These events transformed Rome’s Etruscan monarchy into a republic. In the Italy of 1935, however, the final unison cry of "a Roma!" in Respighi’s opera was to be shortly followed by a decidedly regressive political change, if compared to that of 505 BC.


The Plot of Lucrezia (Opera in one act and three moments)

The First Moment of the opera opens in the Praetorian tent of Sextus Tarquinio. The meal is over; the young princes linger and drink. Tarquinio drinks to war and women. Collatinus looks forward to returning home to their faithful wives. They make fun of the quieter, deeper-thinking Brutus who casts doubt on the faithfulness of the soldiers’ women. They debate feminine virtue and then cast bets about the constancy of their own women. Then they resolve to dash back to Rome to see for themselves what their women are doing. They set off at the gallop. The Voice comments on their ride, "Unwise game, seed of so much evil! For a desire is kindled in the heart of Tarquinio. .."

The Second Moment is located in the home of Collatinus. Lucrezia and her handmaidens are seated in a circle spinning wool. Lucrezia is telling her women a story about an unfaithful treacherous husband. One of the maidens sings, "Oh, without love she couldn’t live" to which Lucrezia retorts, "No: without honour! The suffering is even greater." The distaff becomes entangled as if to foretell the discord that follows. Tarquinio arrives. The Voice seems to suggest Tarquinio’s thoughts and lust. The girls retire but not before they exchange impressions of Tarquinio; "Handsome eyes did you see them?" - "Yes, but how they stare!" - "Evil, they make you shudder..." Lucrezia goes to bed. The Voice tells us that Lucrezia retires with thoughts of love for her husband. But the Voice then goes on to relate that she is rudely awakened by Tarquinio who takes her, after her protestations, by force.

The Third Moment opens with The Voice commenting on the deep grief of the despoiled Lucrezia and of how she sends a message to her father and to Collatinus to come at once. Lucrezia sings of the horrors she has endured and of her deep shame - " There is no fountain that can wash me..." Collatinus arrives to find her in deep distress. She tells him of Tarquinio’s foul treachery: "The imprint of a strange man is on your bed...on ours.. .". Unable to live with the memory of her rape Lucrezia is resolved to die. After making her husband and father swear that she will be avenged, she stabs herself The Voice laments her death. Now the erstwhile fool, Brutus, is galvanised into action. He leads the revolt to revenge Lucrezia and free Rome.


another recording of Lucrezia:-

RESPIGHI Lucrezia (Opera in one Act and Three Moments) Jone Jon, Elizabeth Byrne Mary Anne Whitesides, Susan Anthony, Andreas Jaggil Giuseppi Morino, Daniel Washington, Rudolf Ruch, Rado Hanak, Junge Philarmonie der A.M.O.R. Direttore: Ettore Gracis (rec.1981) BONGIOVANNI - BOLOGNA GB2013-2 AmazonUS

This live performance was first released on LP around 1982 and though it has the text with an English translation, annoyingly the track numbers are not printed with it, just listed at the beginning. Inevitably one will compare it with the 1995 recording on Marco Polo with Adriano in charge. Whereas his production is gripping from the first moment, Gracis allows the opening to be very sluggish - men behaving badly and taking their time over it. It is not an easy task for singers to open a performance without an orchestral introduction or accompaniment. Tarquinio (Daniel Washington), Collatino (Andreas Iaggi), Aruns (Rado Hanak) and Brutus (Giuseppe Morino) are not particularly convincing. Stage noises are distracting and the first entrance of the orchestra sounds boxed in with dubious tuning. Even ‘the rattling gallop drums in the night shadow’ lacks urgency. The Voice, (Jone Jon) as the narrator is called, sings with the necessary drama but lacks variety of tone colour. Lucrezia, (Elizabeth Byrne), is more successful in conveying her changing moods as the story unfolds. Respighi always wrote movingly for tormented females, using the orchestra’s colours to enhance the particular situation. One can trace this line beginning with his arrangement of Ariadne’s lament to this last heroine, Lucrezia. The orchestral colours are not clear enough in this recording; compare the opening of the Third Moment, Track 10 with Adriano’s recording, Track 16 for just one example.

If you do not already have a recording and fancy the idea of an imaginary visit to the theatre then this is adequate. But if you want an interpretation that realises every detail of Respighi’s imaginative score, then search out the later recording on Marco Polo, Opera Classics, 8.223717

Sybil Pentith


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