The Pope’s Destiny

Holy See (vatican City State)Holy See (vatican City State) Verdi, Beethoven: Concert in honour of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI and the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano. Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Conductor, Zubin Mehta, Aula Paolo VI, the Vatican City 04.02.2013  (JB)

Verdi:La forza del Destino Overture
Beethoven: Third Symphony, Op 55, Eroica.

Pausing, after I was gently shown through security screening at the Vatican’s gates, I couldn’t help admiring again the striking appropriateness of the Swiss Guards’ dress. Congratulations on your good taste, shot back a friend who happens to be a theatrical costumer, They were designed by Michelangelo.

No one could ever accuse the Vatican of not putting on a good show. Nowhere on earth does everything look so perfectly apt or in its rightful place.

Tom Lehrer, the witty, fifties satirical songwriter would have dismissed it all as Doin’ the Vatican Rag. Well maybe you had a point, dear Tom, but Believers and Unbelievers all, we got swept away by it whether as a political or cultural statement. The Holy See is wise: it sees no reason to categorise its own activities; let lesser mortals see to that, as they no doubt will.

The event was masterminded by the Italian Embassy to the Holy See, with brief speeches from the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, (before the music) and the Pope (after). Both those gentlemen have secured a place in history: President Napolitano for his resistance to totalitarianism during the War and his sane, skilled balance of power during his present mandate as head of state, which is now coming to an end.; the Pope by virtue of being the Pope.

The immense audience hall was packed. And the acoustic has been much improved for music since I was last here, though it is still far from ideal. Both men enthusiastically thanked the Florence Orchestra and Zubin Mehta and each praised the other’s contribution to humanity. Giorgio Napolitano thanked His Holiness for the spiritual guidance he was offering to our troubled, complex world. Ever so subtly, he suggested that Benedict’s welcome advice should restrict itself to the spiritual sphere. (I disagree Mr President, but then, that is just me, and besides, I am not a practising Christian.)

The Pope echoed the President’s appreciation of the Orchestra and Conductor and went into a somewhat musicological discourse about the music we had heard. His speech writer ought to have used a better fact-checker: La Forza del Destino did not have its first performance at La Scala, Milan in February 1869 (that was a revised version) but at the Bolshoi Theatre, St Petersburg in November 1862.

Zubin Mehta is an excellent Verdian. I cannot myself place him alongside Riccardo Muti, even if he is very close. His Destiny has more urgency than mystery. Verdi welds together these two seemingly incompatible qualities but Maestro Mehta inclines to serving up the first at the expense of the second. The neglected quality –those mysterious, inexplicable sensibilities and feelings which nevertheless ultimately define our humanity- was touched upon by the President, whereon he suggested that this was the department in which His Holiness should restrict his advice. (Agreed on that one, Mr President, but it’s a bigger field than you might first think.)

But I don’t want to be churlish. This was a memorable performance of La Forza’s overture, gripping in all its clearly spelled-out detail.

Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was a suitable choice for the occasion: the very definition of dignity with admirable forays in joy and solemnity. The bursting energy of the whispered opening of the Scherzo (third movement) was beautifully realised under the Mehta baton as were the Allegro variations of the finale. It seemed to me that opening Allegro con brio was not really brio enough and the solemnity of the Funeral March (second movement) was maybe a little too slow for its own good.

Jack Buckley