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Assassinio nella Cattedrale
San Diego Opera
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Thomas Becket in San Diego Opera's Murder in the Cathedral
© Ken Howard 2013
Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as the Third Tempter with bass Furlanetto
© Ken Howard 2013
Soprano Susan Neves as the First Chorus
© Ken Howard 2013
A twenty-first-century audience may be more prepared to appreciate Ildebrando Pizzetti's Assassinio nella Cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral) than audiences were in 1958, when the opera was first staged at La Scala. T. S. Eliot's celebrated play, first performed in 1935, had an agenda specific to the 1930s — to establish a bond between the present and the past as a means of resisting the relentlessly secular forces that were transforming modern society. In 1958, when postwar Europe was rapidly attempting to forget its past and was eagerly embracing modernity, both Eliot's source material and Pizzetti's musical idiom would have struck those who heard the opera as, at best, lacking in currency — and at worst downright irrelevant. Now, more than fifty years later, warier as we are of the modernist agenda, we are prepared to listen to Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral with more receptive ears.
To judge by the enthusiastic reception given the belated West Coast premiere of the opera in San Diego on March 30, those ears are grateful as well as receptive. Structurally Pizzetti's score is late verismo, an unfolding tapestry within the orchestra, which follows and shapes the contours of the dramatic action to heighten its impact on the stage. Despite the Italian heritage of Pizzetti (1880–1968), echoes of Verdi and Puccini are not abundant: the only extensively developed melody comes during the intermezzo, when Thomas Becket gives communion to the priests. The texture instead reminds one of Delius, many of the harmonies recall Debussy and, especially, Wagner's Parsifal; the choruses, not surprisingly, owe much to the chorales of Bach. In contrast to the audiences of the 1950s, we now may be more prepared to accept these musical influences as components of our contemporary culture, especially as we find their period quality appealing.
It was as a period piece that the San Diego production succeeded so well. The staging, by Ian D. Campbell, the general and artistic director of SDO, highlighted the tableau-like aspects of the action, in which Thomas Becket is murdered by knights who claim to be acting as agents for King Henry II. This brought the ritualistic aspects of the work to the fore, and the dialectic on martyrdom, the principal theme of the work, was accordingly highlighted. Ralph Funicello set the action, impressively, in the chancel of the cathedral; the soaring pillars and long stained-glass windows were rendered with the minimalistic poetry characteristic of the 1920s and '30s, while Denitsa Bliznakova's costumes evoked a world of medieval pageant-plays, with just a touch of Greek tragedy. This was a production that embraced its past, in terms of both the content of the action and the theatrical style in which it had first been envisioned: the first performance of Eliot's play was given in the chapter house of Canterbury Cathedral.
All this might have been an exercise in nostalgia, if it were not for the formidable musical forces that invested Pizzetti's (and Eliot's) somewhat cerebral action with dramatic life. Conductor Donato Renzetti constantly emphasized the score's shifting dynamics and rich orchestral colors; the brass section was especially effective in establishing an air of consequence to the action, without intrusive insistence or pomposity. But not surprisingly, all interest was centered on the Thomas Becket of Ferruccio Furlanetto. He dominated the stage in the finest voice: his magnificently authoritative bass not only communicated the charismatic power of the defiant archbishop, it elevated Becket's struggle to understand the nature and integrity of martyrdom to the level of an existential interrogation. This, even more than the struggle with the king, was the center of the performance. The solo with which Becket accepts his role as martyr to God's cause was delivered with such mesmeric force that for the rest of the opera our interest was centered on the spiritual struggle and victory of Becket.
Although the opera is clearly a vehicle for the bass lead, the remainder of the San Diego production was cast from strength. Early on in the action, Allan Glassman gave a riveting account of the Herald's speech, establishing well the perilous atmosphere. Greg Fedderly, Kristopher Irmiter and Gregory Reinhart were the three priests, agonizingly torn between their desire to defend Becket and Becket's insistence that history and God's purpose be allowed to run their course. The four Tempters and Knights were played by Joel Sorensen, Malcolm Mackenzie, Ashraf Sewailam and Kevin Langan; Mackenzie's stout, forthright singing during the Knights' attempt to justify what they have done helped steer the action through its trickiest passages as the music of ritual and heroism gives way to the language of the streets. Notable, too, were soprano Susan Neves and mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman, first and second chorus leaders; Neves especially managed to fill her role with the urgency of powerful emotion — the fear of loss, the horror at chaos — that gave a human immediacy to the ever-present chorus of women, whose purpose is to convey the impact of historical events upon the common people.
Whether either the play or the opera Murder in the Cathedral has relevance to our own lives is, of course, a key question. There was, to some degree, an air of religious ritual about the performance in San Diego; it was one of those occasions that one felt could as well take place within a church as a theater, and the ultimate survival of Pizzetti's opera within the repertoire may depend on our willingness to blur the boundaries between artistic and religious experience. Musically, however, this is a rich work that will withstand multiple hearings. San Diego Opera has shown courage in taking up a comparatively obscure but impressive opera. Perhaps they might consider reviving other works by Pizzetti, a composer who has the potential to enrich and expand the repertoire.
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