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Once More to the Cathedral

This month, San Diego Opera offers a rare performance of Assassinio nella Cattedrale, Ildebrando Pizzetti's opera adaptation of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. MARJORIE SANDOR looks at the unusual history of this potent twentieth-century masterwork.

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Ferruccio Furlanetto as Becket at La Scala, 2009
Marco Brescia/© Teatro alla Scala 2013
"All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life, I have waited." – Thomas Becket, in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral
Once More to the Cathedral lg 313
Composer Pizzetti
OPERA NEWS Archives
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Furlanetto in Pizzetti's Assassinio
Marco Brescia/© Teatro alla Scala 2013

Some dramas are so old, so potent, we are drawn to them in spite of our dread. Think of the journey of the spiritual leader who defies a powerful political machine and is, one day, cut down before our eyes. We know how it ends, yet we can't stop listening for the assassin's footsteps; we can't look away from the martyr's mysterious courage.

This is the rare form of suspense that drives T. S. Eliot's 1935 verse-play, Murder in the Cathedraland pulses under the dynamic rhythms of Ildebrando Pizzetti's opera Assassinio nella Cattedralecomposed some two decades later. Eliot the poet loved music and used its structures in his drama about the twelfth-century martyr Thomas Becket. In turn, Pizzetti the composer loved theater, and you can feel it in every measure of his opera. It's there in the menacing tread of the approaching assassins, haunted by an echo of Gregorian plainsong. It's in the faint melody of peace accompanying Thomas. 

Most of all, it lives in the urgent music of "the poor Women of Canterbury," a chorus that hovers by Thomas's side, aware that the season has darkened from "golden October" to "somber November." It ebbs and flows around him as the drama moves into darkest December, a nadir through which all must pass, and where, "in a waste of water and mud, the New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness."

Renewal after winter's darkest moment is a subtle thread weaving through play and opera. It is also part of the opera's history. More than fifty years have passed since its acclaimed premiere at La Scala and a flurry of productions in Europe and North America. In the past few years, after a nearly complete silence, it has begun to re-emerge. And this month, Assassinio returns to the U.S. for its first full-scale production, a West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera under the direction of Ian Campbell, with the title role of Becket sung by Ferruccio Furlanetto. 

T.S. Eliot was forty-seven years old, already the celebrated poet of The Waste Land, Prufrock and Ash Wednesday, when he wrote Murder in the Cathedral, a play he hoped would encourage a generation of poet-dramatists to return verse to the stage, so that "our own sordid, dreary world would be suddenly illuminated and transfigured." A British citizen since 1927 and recent convert to the Anglican Church, Eliot composed the play on commission for the Canterbury Festival of June 1935. 

The play, based on an eyewitness account of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on December 29, 1170, revolves around the martyr's last days — and last hours. Thomas Becket, who was once Henry II's Lord Chancellor, then his Archbishop, enraged his King by renouncing his political office and declaring God his Higher Authority. The drama opens as Thomas returns from seven years' exile, knowing the King's men will come for him. During Act I, Four Tempters — manifestations of his inner life — arrive to trouble his resolve. Most complex is the Fourth Tempter, specter of spiritual vanity, the secret hope of a martyr's lasting fame — a role so close to Eliot's heart that he voiced the part himself in the film version of the play. 

"I did not want to write a chronicle of twelfth-century politics," Eliot wrote. "I wanted to concentrate on death and martyrdom." Biographer Lyndall Gordon says Eliot may have had a personal reason for that focus. He was, at the time, enmeshed in "the gravest moral crisis of his life," a protracted struggle to secure a separation from his first wife, Vivienne, whose harrowing — and often public — demonstrations of her attachment threatened to overwhelm him. Gordon believes Eliot gave Thomas no small measure of his own inner spiritual struggle.

Maybe that personal anguish accounts, in part, for the play's urgency, its intimate and strangely contemporary feel as Thomas's faith is tested by fretting priests, clever former-selves and boisterous knights who come to the edge of the stage, eight centuries after the deed is done, offering us euphemistic and eerily familiar justifications for the murder. 

Or maybe it's the vulnerability of that chorus, "the poor Women of Canterbury," binding us to Thomas's spiritual journey: from the moment they gather, full of foreboding, outside the cathedral, they are on the move, as unhinged by the approaching menace as he is at peace with it. At the moment of the murder, it's the chorus, bearing witness, that registers not only the terror of the act but its own feelings of self-repulsion: "Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them. The land is foul, the water is foul, our beasts and ourselves defiled with blood."

It was very likely the chorus — along with the allure of a sacred drama — that attracted the composer destined to give it such a rich operatic form. Born in Parma in 1880, eight years before Eliot, Ildebrando Pizzetti came to music from youthful dreams of playwriting. His biographer, Guido Gatti, suggests that this love of drama left its mark on his music, especially his operas: the music always serves the story, through-composed and dramatically taut. By the time Pizzetti came to Assassinio, he was in his late seventies, with a long career of composing and teaching already behind him. He had written eight operas, incidental music for theater and film, and several works for orchestra. Above all, he had a reputation for spectacular choral writing.

According to his granddaughter, Nicoletta Valletti, Pizzetti's son Bruno brought the play to his attention. He did so, she says, because the "poor Women of Canterbury" presented such great opportunities for choral writing. 

Famously conservative in temperament, Pizzetti took a while to welcome the idea. Ultimately he took the project on, using as the libretto Alberto Castelli's Italian translation of Eliot's play. There are, necessarily, reductions: much of Thomas's long prose Christmas sermon is evoked through orchestral music, and the self-serving speeches of the drunken knights, post-murder, are reduced to a few choice lines.

The opera's musical tension rises in successive waves, quietly opposed, in a few fleeting moments, by an elusive motif. It accompanies Thomas as he arrives at Canterbury and returns, faintly, at the end of his Christmas sermon to the people. Each time, it floats past and dissipates, lingering in memory even as it is swamped by the rising violence of the knights, by the fussy hand-wringing of the priests, by the desperate, panicked cries and pleadings of the women of Canterbury. 

A little call in the woods, always on the point of dissolving. Pure spirit — released from its earthly passions, utterly at peace.

But ultimately, the tension rises again: it is headed inexorably for a sinister, march-like Dies Irae, sung by the chorus as the priests try to wrestle a resistant Thomas into hiding. 

And if, for Eliot, a personal struggle informed the urgency of the play, so, for Pizzetti, is a secret grief tucked into the Dies Irae. It is based on the same Gregorian hymn he used thirty-six years earlier in the haunting Dies Irae of his 1922 Messa da Requiema work written in the wake of his first wife's death. 

Assassinio nella Cattedrale had its premiere at La Scala on March 1, 1958, with bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the role of Thomas Becket and soprano Leyla Gencer as the First Chorister. Its set featured a great retable that opened into the shape of a cross. Pizzetti was, at first, "a bit doubtful" about the set, Nicoletta Valletti notes. But once he saw it in rehearsal, she says, "He knew it was going to be fantastic."

The production was widely acclaimed throughout Europe and North America. Time Magazine proclaimed that with this opera and "La Scala's brilliant production," Pizzetti had "finally moved into a bigger league." Eliot himself, too frail to attend the premiere, sent a cable to the composer: "I am proud to be the author of the work that inspired you." 

Other performances followed, including, in the fall of 1958, a production in Montreal and a concert version at Carnegie Hall starring Rossi-Lemeni and a young Martina Arroyo in her operatic debut appearance. In 1960, the Vienna State Opera, under Herbert von Karajan, presented the opera in German, using La Scala's set and starring Hans Hotter as Thomas. 

And then, after a few other European productions, came a nearly complete forty-year silence — a silence that, with any luck, is over.

In 2006, the opera was performed in the twelfth-century Basilica di San Nicola, with Ruggero Raimondi as Thomas. Three years later, it returned to La Scala with Furlanetto. In May 2011, John Tomlinson played Thomas in an English-language version in Frankfurt.

San Diego Opera's general and artistic director Ian Campbell first heard the opera in the early 1970s, "on an open-reel tape, doubtless pirated." Initially, it was the chorus that drew him, with its intense emotional spectrum — the way, he says, "the phrases come out of one another and overlap." Later, when he looked at the text, particularly at the moment of Thomas's arrival at the cathedral, the power of the images stunned him. "The fact that the Italian text is taken directly from Eliot gives it a theatrical core," says Campbell — "a direct connection not always found between page and stage in operatic literature." 

The opera's greatest musical challenge, he says, belongs to the women's chorus. "They're onstage the whole time," he notes. "Their role is very physical, very real. They're not a classic Greek Chorus — they interact with Thomas and work through a huge range of emotions. They are part of the opera's forward thrust." 

For Pizzetti's granddaughter, too, the chorus plays a memorable role, in particular the First Chorister's aria — the only set-piece in the opera — sung in the wake of Thomas's last Christmas sermon to the people of Canterbury, delivered just four days before his murder. "The music captures the color of the changing season," says Valletti — "not the happiness of Christmas but the feeling of going into winter." 

From that moment onward, the music tightens its grip on chorus and audience. It won't release us until the assassins have done their work. 

What each of us later recalls from Assassinio nella Cattedrale will of course be different. For some it will be the majestic clarity of Thomas's music. For others, it will be the First Chorister's aria, with its dark December shades. It might be the ominous tread beneath the Dies Irae, the sound of the feet, says Thomas just before the knights break in, "that have been coming for me all my life." 

Or maybe, just maybe, it will be that elusive melody line that so easily disappears but hints at a greater mystery, at a peace beyond our reckoning. spacer 

MARJORIE SANDOR teaches creative writing and literature at Oregon State University. Her most recent book is The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction (2011). 

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4