Il Prigioniero & Suor Angelica
Polaski and Nigl, stars of Prigioniero in Madrid
© Javier del Real 2013
Toledano and Di Giacomo in Madrid's Suor Angelica
© Javier del Real 2013
Two victims without hope, caged in oppressive physical and mental prisons, who can escape their tormentors only through death — this is the common thread that Teatro Real's artistic director Gerard Mortier and veteran Spanish stage and opera director Lluís Pasqual found to connect Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero and Puccini's Suor Angelica, a pair of twentieth-century operas evidently never staged together before. This new production (seen Nov. 3) is a joint venture with Barcelona's Liceu, which uses the Prigioniero part from a previous Opéra National de Paris staging.
Pairing short operas of different eras — and apparently diverging aesthetic purposes — is a specialty of Mortier's hands-on theater administration. Last year he paired Tchaikovsky's Iolanta with Stravinsky's Persephone, and one of the interesting thoughts that double-bill triggered was the relationship of Russian art with truth and light. Here the two composers are both Italian, but their musical idioms are as different as possible — even though Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) and Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) were separated by just a single artistic generation.
Dallapiccola's Prigioniero (1949) was presented first, although it was composed well after Suor Angelica (1918). Prigioniero is a score of harsh dodecaphonic lines, but the Mediterranean sun shines in some of the singing lines, especially those of the prisoner's Mother. The Mother, here sung by the impeccable tragedienne Deborah Polaski, faces the public in despair. She has dreamed that her son, the Prisoner, will soon die. This happens in Zaragoza, in the days of the Spanish Inquisition. The heartless power that crushes the victims in both operas wears the robes of the Roman Catholic Church. Dallapiccola composed the Prigioniero score to his own text, based on a tale by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, during World War II, and the desperate situation of Europe under Fascism permeates the score. The son is told by his Jailer that he can walk free, but in the end, the Grand Inquisitor grabs the Prisoner from behind. "Why did you want to leave us on the eve of your salvation?" he says, with chilling sweetness. The scaffold is waiting.
Extracting Suor Angelica from IlTrittico and placing it next to this bleak fable, whose explicit moral is that no torture is worse than provoking false hope, set Puccini's story of thwarted mother love in a new light. And using the same elaborate sets strengthened the connection. Both operas operated inside and around a huge metal contraption: the movements and light effects of this cage made a vital character out of it. The prisoner and the nuns were trapped in this moving "superstructure," an intelligent and evil building.
The effect of logical connection between the two operas was stressed further by the reappearance of Polaski in the second opera. After crying desperately for the fate of her son, she arrived in Angelica as the heartless Zia Principessa to drive the last nail into her niece's coffin. Though her scenes in both operas were brief, this wonderful dramatic soprano set the tone and illuminated the stage with her magnetic presence. Polaski's Puccini delivery was understated, almost motionless, hushed — a far cry from other Angelica Principessas. It worked well here, allowing Angelica's emotional outpouring to make its full impact.
Young American soprano Julianna Di Giacomo produced a high-caliber, beautifully sung, poignant Angelica. Her mellow middle range made her shine in the group scenes, and her crisp top notes produced an emotionally charged finale. Out of the dozen nuns, Auxiliadora Toledano clearly stood out as the innocent Suor Genovieffa. In Il Prigioniero, Austrian baritone Georg Nigl, a new-music specialist, used his fine, malleable voice to full effect as the desperate, then hopeful and finally defeated convict. Donald Kaasch was a potent, chilling Jailer who morphs into the Grand Inquisitor.
Ingo Metzmacher gave each score its due, sorting out the tricky rhythmic intricacies of the Dallapiccola and spreading the honey of Puccini's vast orchestral palette with a sure hand. The children's choir of Madrid's music school Jorcam was especially noteworthy.
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