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A CurtainUp Review

By Savid Lipfert

Editor's Note: As per our last note accompanying David's review of Le Circle Invisible, we don't usually review shows retrospectively. However, the Lincoln Center Summer '97 Festival is a bit special, with many of the events booked for too short a time for a go see kind of review, but unique enough to post for archival purposes. The opera Palestrina is a particular case in point. For one thing, it has never been performed in the U.S.; for another, the composer's political connections have aroused much discussion among opera lovers everywhere, particularly on the internet*. Finally, since opera is a new genre at this site, we have, so far, limited ourselves to rarely performed and less-than-usually familiar operas a spec this opera certainly fits.

*Apropos of the political controversy about this and other composers, we refer you to our archived review of Taking Sides a play centering on Wilhelm Furtwängler which had an all too brief Broadway run in Fall '97--Taking Sides

As the single opera in the Lincoln Center Festival 97, Palestrina had to bear most of the weight of the classical music portion of this second annual summer collection of internationally-tested performances. Outside of German-speaking countries, Hans Pfitzner's opera from 1917 has never enjoyed great popularity. These performances marking the New York debut for The Royal Opera, Covent Garden were also the opera's first fully professional staging in the U.S. The Royal's production premiered to a decidedly mixed reception earlier this year in London and the New York performances elicited a similar response, both in the press and at the equally-important box office.

Based on incidents from the life of Italian liturgical composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and the Council of Trent, Pfitzner's libretto is a carefully constructed portrayal of the artist and his creative powers against the mundane backdrop of liturgical politics. Palestrina's compositions become the culmination of 16th century polyphony in Rome, modern relative to the Church's ancient Gregorian chant but conservative in contrast to forward-looking musical trends developing elsewhere. Pfitzner shows a composer in the midst of a very real artistic crisis as his inspiration has dried up after his wife's death. Commands from the Church hierarchy to produce a masterpiece (what would become the Missa Papae Marcelli) are ineffective. Only divine inspiration via an angelic choir can give rise to the mass that would free him from jail and torture. The composer thereby becomes the vindicator of the Italian and German bishops' position on church music at the Council.

In Palestrina, Pfitzner was eclectic in the best sense of the word. He assimilated such major musical threads from the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Wagner and Strauss operas, Brahms's symphonies and Dvorak's choruses in his magnum opus. Written and composed over several years, the opera has music carefully wedded to text to reflect the characters' emotional shifts during lengthy discourses plus memorable scene-setting preludes. Absence of Wagnerian-style leitmotifs accentuates the immediate interactions of the characters rather than creating a more generalized dramatic mood or single-theme identification for the large cast of soloists. As such, this work, whose running time is the better part of five hours, demands an equally serious approach by the listener.

Imitating the character of polyphony, Nikolaus Lehnhoff opted for clarity in presenting Palestrina's many characters: there are relatively few close encounters on stage. Unfortunately, the inclusion of a few realistic details made a jarring effect in the context of otherwise rather solemn depictions. The prominent bandages Palestrina sported after his torture in prison seemed designed to evoke notions of contemporary relevance. A well-laden table for Madruscht and Novagerio in Act II gave undue weight to their conversation in the context of the more important Council meeting. Mr. Lehnhoff's chorus of shrouded spirits of past composers who salute Palestrina with their bust in hand was clever. By placing the singers mostly at the rear of Tobias Hoheisel's stark set, Mr. Lehnhoff has followed the current directorial trend, nearly ensuring inaudibility except when one of the soloists came downstage. Essential in this case were the surtitles (in British English) by Tim Ashley. Bettina J. Walter's costumes aspired to be historically accurate, but Roman Catholic bishops probably never used grey paisley aprons.

Rising star Christian Thielemann conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra with, if anything, too much reverence for the score that he has championed in recent years. More variations in tempo and dynamics would have enlivened his capable reading. Placement of horns and bases at the rear of the pit to face the audience audience accentuated the mellow quality of substantial portions of the score.

In the title role, tenor Thomas Moser played Palestrina more like an icon than as a living artist. His baritonal quality failed to achieve the needed contrast to the remainder of the mostly low-voiced cast. His fickle patron Borromeo (Alan Held) was a caricature of a petty, imperious cardinal. Almost complete disuse of head resonance made him a trial to listen to as well as watch. Warm-timbered mezzo Randi Stene made a memorable portrayal of the composer's student Silla. Ruth Ziesak was less successful as Palestrina's son Ighino. Staging that kept her mostly upstage especially hampered her soprano, and athletic arm waving did not ensure greater power.

Among the characters appearing only in the second act set in Trent, Kim Begley stood out as the crafty Novagerio. For many the star of this act was Sergei Leiferkus, who made Luna into a pivotal force for the Council scene. Seeing his distinguished stage presence brought memories of his Rangoni in the Kirov's Boris Godounov as well as questions why he was not cast as Borromeo, the longest role in this opera. Ideally palestrina requires a large cast of strong personalities to differentiate the numerous characters and to create interest in lengthy speeches like Morone's (Thomas Allen) address to the Council .

Like much of what is produced in the large opera houses today, this Palestrina suffers from anonymity of style. Many factors have contributed to this situation, but the most serious are the nearly complete rejection of singers from the past available in recordings and lack of preparation time for all concerned. On balance, however, the "Royal" and Lincoln Center Festival performed a great service by presenting this serviceable version of palestrina

Music and libretto by Hans Pfitzner
Starring-Thomas Moser, Alan Held, Randi Stene, Ruth Ziesak, Kim Begley, Thomas Allen, Siegfried Vogel, Robert Tear, Sergei Leiferkus
Conducted by Christian Thielemann
Directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center (212) 721-6500
From: 7/21/97-7/26/97
Reviewed 7/26/97 by David Lipfert

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