Above: composer Luigi Dallapiccola
Tuesday June 11th, 2013 - Tonight at Avery Fisher Hall came a rare opportunity to experience a live performance of Luigi Dallapiccola's 1950 opera IL PRIGIONIERO (The Prisoner) in a concert performance by the New York Philharmonic with the participation of the Collegiate Chorale. The programme opened with a performance of the Prokofiev violin concerto #1 that was nothing short of spectacular.
The Prokofiev will be familiar to New York City Ballet-goers as the setting for the spellbinding Jerome Robbins ballet OPUS 19/THE DREAMER. In a lovely bit of irony, the soloist tonight - Lisa Batiashvili - could easily be imagined as a ballerina. Wearing a Prussian-blue gown with silvery bodice, the Georgian violinist was every bit as ravishing to watch as to listen to.
Conductor Alan Gilbert remarked in the Playbill on his fine rapport with Ms. Batiashvili (above) and this was evident throughout their incandescent rendering of the Prokofiev tonight. The conductor's body English and expressive hands seemed to coax the violinist into an intimate personal dialogue; maestro and musician leaned and swayed in harmony like dancers in a pas de deux. Ms. Batiashvili's silvery tone threaded thru the shimmering mystery of the orchestral textures to spine-tingling effect; her heartfelt playing of the melodic passages was magical and her intoxicating trills took on a life of their own. Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic players gave the soloist a mithril-blue sound tapestry against which her playing created the illusion of a star-filled summer's-eve sky.
Following the intermission, the opera was performed:
Above: Gerald Finley, who sang the title-role of The Prisoner
Dallapiccola, a composer rather forgotten today, was influenced early on by Wagner and Debussy and later by Webern, Schoenberg and Berg; he developed a style that took a lyrical approach to serialism. A staunch anti-Fascist, Dallapiccola went into hiding during the Mussolini era. He survived the war, continuing to write until 1972; he died in 1975.
His opera IL PRIGIONIERO - so very timely today - is a musically fascinating and dramatically bleak view of religious/political oppression and the de-valuation of individual human life. Though the opera is set in Spanish-occupied Flanders during the reign of Philip II, its narrative is timeless: to this day there are political prisoners languishing in dark holes around the world, forsaken by both gods and mankind.
Dallapiccola distills the eternal shame of man's inhumanity to man into the story of a single anonymous Prisoner whose Jailer allows him to escape, apparently in an act of fraternal kindness. But in fact it's only a cruel joke: the Prisoner reaches the fresh, open air only to be confronted by his judge, the Grand Inquisitor, who shows him the stake where he is to be burned. The composer’s unique blend of verismo-style vocal writing with 12-tone orchestral technique creates an unusually powerful statement while the libretto makes this opera searingly moving; it ends with the Prisoner simply whispering the word ‘Freedom?’
Gerald Finley's performance in the title-role was superb; it's hard to imagine another artist today who could have done this demanding music fuller justice. In recent seasons at the Met, this bass-baritone has impressed in two diverse roles: Golaud in PELLEAS ET MELISANDE and as Mozart's Don Giovanni. Tonight in the Dallapiccola, Finley's painterly range of vocal hues and his mastery of dynamics held our focus just as the hapless character held our sympathy. His haunting piano tone on the word "Fratello!" lingered in the ear as the Prisoner expresses the hope of having found a savior in the person of his Jailer.
The Jailer has left the cell door ajar. In a long, harrowing narrative - marvelously expressive singing from Mr. Finley - the terrified Prisoner stumbles through the dark passageways of the dungeon, urged on by desperate hope. But as he is to discover, hope is the ultimate form of torture.
In the dual role of The Jailer/Grand Inquisitor tenor Peter Hoare gave a performance rich in dramatic detail: deceit and sinister joy in his own power came thru inthe singer's vocalism. Hoare, who sang the Captain in a memorable performance of WOZZECK here last November, is an incisive and expert vocal colorist.
Patricia Racette as the Prisoner's mother was vocally intense in a searing prologue/monolog that suited her current vocal state very well. If her forte top notes were jarringly over-vibrant, her beautifully-coloured middle and lower registers and vividly expressive rendering of the Italian text made me think she might have been the right soprano to sing Francesca da Rimini in The Met's recent revival of the Zandonai opera.
IL PRIGIONIERO has only two other roles: a pair of priests sung by tenor William Ferguson and baritone Sidney Outlaw. Their conversation is overheard by The Prisoner during his escape; they describe the imminent executions and add to the terror of The Prisoner's journey. William Ferguson, a friend of mine from his Juilliard days, made a striking vocal impression in this brief scene.
The opera contains two large-scale choral passages set to sacred texts in which the Collegiate Chorale made an exciting contribution to the performance with their urgent, impassioned singing. Alan Gilbert fashioned the whole opera into a blazing musico-dramatic statement, with musicians, soloists and choral artists alike bringing this neglected work and its tragically still-valid message to us on powerful terms.