Palestrina and the prattling prelates

Pfitzner’s Palestrina has had some pretty extravagant claims made for it.  Bruno Walter said “The work has all the elements of immortality”.  I’m not so sure.  The music is very appealing but it’s structurally problematic.  It’s ostensibly about Palestrina and the struggle to convince Pius IV that polyphony had a legitimate place in church music but while the first and third acts are just that they frame a second act that’s about the various squabbles at the Council of Trent, of which the question of music was but one.  I think it’s meant to be a satyr on church politics of the time but it feels heavy handed, overly long and introduces a vast number of minor characters.  These are not only confusing but probably make the work unstageable for all but the very richest houses.  There are over 40 named solo parts but only one is a woman (and she’s dead) so major Bechdel fail here too.  I think if one took a chainsaw to Act 2 a pretty decent opera might come out of it because the human story is quite affecting and the music is distinctive and rather good.  Although premiered in 1917 it’s stylistically anti-modern and would likely appeal to a lot of people who are not normally drawn to 20th century opera.


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Transcendent Tristan

There may be better video recordings of Tristan und Isolde than Daniel Barenboim and Heiner Müller’s 1995 Bayreuth collaboration but I haven’t seen one.  It combines a deeply satisfying production, outstanding conducting and brilliant performances from the principals; Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier.  The only downside, and it’s not serious, is that, as a 1995 recording, it’s a bit short of the latest and greatest in audio and video quality.

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Fidelio – Metropolitan Opera 2000

Apparently the 2000 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Met was controversial. It’s very hard to see why. Although Jürgen Flimm has moved the setting to the mid 20th century and some unspecified country that looks vaguely Germanic the storyline is followed to the letter, bar a few changes to dialogue, and there is no risk at all of any dangerous ideas surfacing. It’s actually a very good example of what the Met does when it’s on form; assemble an all star cast, stick them in an inoffensive production and let the music do its thing. Here we have an enviable cast. Leonora/Fidelio is sung by Karita Matila who looks and sounds spectacular (although maybe the fact that she’s the only “male” among the principals with no facial hair should have triggered a little cluefulness). Vocally she is most assured and never seems under any strain at all. She acts well too. Ben Heppner, as Florestan, is also vocally solid and even quite lyrical in the big trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten”. The acting though is best passed over in discrete silence. René Pape is fascinating as Rocco, the gaoler. I’m used to seeing Pape playing magisterial roles like Boris Gudonov or Sarastro. Here, the big voice is coupled with almost bumbling acting as he plays a morally weak character. It’s most interesting. A young Matthew Polenzani, one of my favourite tenors, sings Jacquino and he sings quite beautifully. Marzellini is Jennifer Welch-Babidge who I had never heard before but was sufficiently impressed to go look her up. It seems she’s busy with four kids in Utah and doesn’t spend much time at all in opera houses these days. It’s rather a pity. Falk Struckmann’s Don Pizarro is appropriately villainish and musically solid like everyone else. James Levine conducts and right from the overture launches us into a very intense, muscular reading of the score backed up by a very high standard orchestra. Musically and dramatically this is very satisfying albeit in a thoroughly conservative way.

The production was recorded for TV broadcast and it shows. The sets are already pretty claustrophobic but Brian Large’s video direction amplifies that. One gets the feeling that this is being directed for a 27 inch screen and it looks a bit lost on anything much larger. That said, the picture is more than decent and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is top notch (Dolby 5.1 and LPCM stereo are also offered). The English subtitles are a bit odd. For some reason “Gouverneur” is translated as “Colonel” and “König” as “President”. I didn’t check the French, German, Spanish or Chinese subs for similar oddness. Bonus material is minimal but the documentation is fairly decent. All in all it’s a typical Deutsche Grammophon release of its period.

This excerpt from Act 1 (Gut, Söhnchen, gut) is pretty typical.