Beethoven and Dallapiccola: An Intriguing and Compelling Combination

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven and Dallapiccola:Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano), Angeles Blancas Gulin (soprano), Andrea Baker (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Carlo Putelli (tenor), Louis Otey (baritone), Antonio Pirozzi (bass), Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.5.2014. (JPr)

Beethoven: ‘Gott! Welch dunkel hier!’ (Fidelio Act II)
Luigi Dallapiccola: Il prigioniero – opera in one act
Beethoven: Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato (third movement) from Symphony No.9 (Choral)
Beethoven: Presto – Allegro assai (fourth movement) from Symphony No.9 (Choral)


Antonio Pappano – music director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia – explained his choice of programme for the concert: ‘In the early 90s, I spent a period of time exploring works themed around conflict – such as Britten’s War Requiem, Honegger’s Liturgique and Shostakovich’s music. I had wanted to conduct Dallapiccola’s little-performed opera Il prigioniero, written during the war years in Italy, but it’s too short a piece to present on its own. So I searched for a way to expand the programme into a meditation on the issues of war, struggle, torture, injustice and freedom. The Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony provided the perfect fit because we could use the same vocal soloists for both. The end of Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero fades away perfectly into the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. It might seem strange to split up a symphony and only perform the final two movements but why not imagine it as a possibility, when one blends into the other? So many know the Ninth well enough not to need to have to listen to the whole symphony again. Starting the programme with Florestan’s aria in solitary confinement, desperately calling out into the darkness, sets the scene for the evening. It moves me just thinking about the music, not least because these works are a mirror on our own world – it is just as relevant today as it was last time I performed it in the 1990s.’ Pappano also spoke to the audience at the Royal Festival Hall to explain this thematic connection between the works we were about to hear during this interval-less concert and ended by saying ‘I wish you Bon Voyage on this musical journey.’

 In hindsight, I wished more people had taken the opportunity to join Pappano and his Roman Orchestra, Chorus and the soloists on their journey. I suspect the Royal Festival Hall was only just half-full at best – and there were obviously a lot of guests present amongst those who were there. I will admit that the concert was much better than I expected but this freedom-inspired concept was not intriguing enough to warrant a top ticket price of £70 … with some ‘premium seats’ even being offered at £85!

 As the evening progressed I began even to wonder why more classical concerts are not themed like this. The wrongfully imprisoned Florestan sings of ‘An angel … who’ll lead me to freedom’ –  and although at this point it was a slight distraction that Angeles Blancas Gulin walked onto the platform to sing the Mother in Dallapiccola’s one-act opera – her character is in fact visiting her son, another political prisoner, for what she suspects will be the last time. He is tricked by the Jailer into thinking he is a free man but later realises that his supposed saviour is actually the Grand Inquisitor!  As he is led to be burnt at the stake he plaintively utters (the stage directions add ‘with a tone of questioning’) ‘La libertà?’ (Liberty?). The slow movement from Beethoven’s Ninth brought some respite and a few minutes to reflect on what we had just experienced. This uplifting paean to the ideal of universal brotherhood confirms that we should never give up on our hopes for a better future despite the evidence to the contrary.

 What Dallapiccola’s 1948 work proves is that ‘less is more’ and its 45 minutes resonated so much more with me than most of Birtwistle’s three-and-a-quarter hour Gawain had at the Barbican the previous evening. The moment when the Prisoner realises that he has no prospect of salvation is a chilling one as he utters – as the stage directions further add – ‘an unarticulated sound, shocked with fear’ and he sings ‘It is hoping which is the final torture.’ This is a compelling work which is often very anguished and has many other shifts of emotion that are mirrored by an intense score that is rooted in 12-tone music but is also occasionally quite lyrical. Its contemporary soundworld is not that far removed from Birtwistle’s.

 Despite the singers often being reliant on their scores this meticulously prepared performance had a great sense of theatre … possibly not surprising given Pappano’s involvement. His Beethoven was lush, romantic and clear with considerable emotional depth and did full justice to the composer’s most visionary aspirations. He was fully supported by his soloists, a magnificent chorus and an impeccable orchestra.The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Orchestra is an impressive Italian ensemble and their performance was nuanced and accurate with many illuminating moments of orchestral detail that I suspect some other orchestras and their conductors might overlook.

 Stuart Skeleton’s powerfully projected voice was impressive throughout the evening whether as Florestan, the Prisoner or in his ‘Turkish March’ aria. Although his Florestan sounded less tortured than some can in the opera house his approach fitted the overall concept of the evening well and a certain nobility and spiritual ardour was very evident. With the knowledge of what the ending of the Dallapiccola opera was to be his repeated unctuous interjections of ‘Fratello’ (My brother) – when the tenor employed effective falsetto piano tones – were very chilling.

 The soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin was magnificent as the Mother; her singing was powerful and increasingly despairing during the long Prologue. The distress of the Prisoner was well conveyed by Louis Otey and when he recalled how his jailer had called him ‘fratello’ he brought a certain angelic poignancy to the fragile vocal line. Mr Otey’s voice occasionally had a hint of gravel in the lower register that fitted the Prisoner well but perhaps wasn’t quite as appropriate for ushering in the ‘Ode to Joy’ with the familiar ‘Oh Freude …’. Carlo Putelli and Antonio Pirozzi were effective in the short scene as two priests lost in a world of their own. Perhaps Angeles Blancas Gulin had never tried to sing Beethoven’s Ninth, so it was luxury casting to have Rachel Willis-Sørensen sing the soprano part in the finale to the Beethoven symphony although her voice didn’t seem as if it had warmed up properly on her first entry. The roster of singers was completed by Andrea Baker’s resonant mezzo voice. Incidentally according to her biography this British-American singer ‘began her stage career with the San Francisco Opera in Mahler’s Die Walküre’ – I always suspected that he had composed more than just those relatively few symphonies and songs!!

Jim Pritchard

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