Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral in Frankfurt

Pizzetti, Assassinio nella Cattedrale: Soloists, Frankfurter und Museumsorchester, Chor und Kinderchor der Oper Frankfurt. Conductor: Martyn Brabbins. Oper Frankfurt. 5. 5.2011 (JMI)

New Production
Direction: Keith Warner
Sets: Tilo Steffens
Costumes: Julia Müer
Lighting: Olaf Winter


Thomas Becket: Sir John Tomlinson
First Coryphaeus: Britta Stallmeister
Second Coryphaeus: Katharina Magiera
First Priest: Han-Jürgen Lazar
Second Priest: Dietrich Volle
Third Priest: Vuyani Mlinde
First Tempter/Knight: Beau Gibson
Second Tempter/Knight: Simon Bailey
Third Tempter/Knight: Brett Carter
Fourth Tempter/Knight: Magnus Baldvinsson
Herald: Michael McCown

Production Picture © Monika Rittershaus

Ildebrando Pizzetti is almost unknown in today’s opera world, rather like his compatriot Ottorino Respighi, although he at least is still present in concert halls from time to time . Notwithstanding this oversight, Pizzetti is a very important musician, whose principal musical activity took place between the 1920s and 1960s of the last century, and who was a member of a group of artists who opposed fascism in Italy. His output features 8 operas, composed overs a period of 50 years, from Fedra in 1915 to Clitennestra in 1965. His music is tonal, well-orchestrated, but a long way from the verismo movement and distinctly reminiscent of the aforementioned Respighi.

Assassinio nella Cattedrale is his sixth opera and had its premiere at La Scala in 1958, achieving great success, only to fall into oblivion later on. The opera is based on the drama by the American poet TS Eliot, under the title ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ and revolves around the murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by knights sent by King Henry II in 1170. The opera has a great dramatic strength and is well written, with beautiful choral pages, especially for womens’ voice. Actually, it has always been a vehicle for showcasing a great bass, who is the only real protagonist of the opera. At its premiere Becket was played by Nicola Rossi-Lemeni with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting. Subsequently, Hans Hotter added the role to his repertoire, and in recent years Ruggero Raimondi and Ferruccio Furlanetto have also featured it.

For the occasion, Frankfurt Opera has commissioned a new production from Keith Warner. His work is not just straightforwardly historicist, which might have been expected, considering that this is an almost unknown opera, but on the contrary he focuses his direction on the confrontation between the Crown and the Church or, if you prefer, between Politics and Religion. There’s a whole lot of sense in this approach considering that Eliot’s work was banned by the Nazis. Warner sets the action at the time of the opera’s premiere with a claustrophobic stage and many symbolic features – from the temptations of Thomas Becket to his assassination and burial, which Becket comes along to watching it: by no means an absurdity which considering that ​​Keith Warner presents Thomas Becket as a visionary in search of martyrdom. Everything that happens on stage is a representation of Becket’s dreams of glory and adds up to an interesting production that probably loses a little of its impact, by avoiding the cathedral setting and ecclesiastical costumes.

Musical direction was in the hands of British conductor Martyn Brabbins, who has made twentieth century operas his specialty. His reading was perfectly adequate, although I would have loved to have seen more energy from the podium, speaking purely personally. Even so, there was a remarkable performance from the orchestra which became truly spectacular when heard the womens’ section of the chorus.

As I mentioned above, there is only one protagonist, Becket himself, and all other singers in the cast are secondary. Here we had Sir John Tomlinson, whose performance was more than remarkable in terms of expressiveness and stage performance. Vocally, at nearly 65, his singing is not quite at the same high level, obviously. There is still great poise and volume in the middle range, but in the upper reaches the voice is now soon tired with an uncontrollable vibrato, and difficult high notes. It is a pity that Sir John did not tackle this role some 15 years ago, when his Wotan and Hagen still walked through Bayreuth.

The other characters were very well cast with special mention to soprano Britta Stallmeister and mezzo soprano Katharina Magiera and it worth is recalling that at the premiere at La Scala the soprano was no other than Leyla Gencer.

The theater offered a few empty seats and the audience gave a warm reception, not truly enthusiastic to the artists, with the biggest applause for John Tomlinson, Britta Stallmeister, Katherina Magiera and the chorus. The opera was sung in English and was performed without intermission, lasting 1 hour and 23 minutes.

José Ma. Irurzun