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 »  Home  »  Culture And Arts  »  From Pazin to Paris - Luigi Dallapiccola's Opera Ill Prigioniero featured in the NYT
From Pazin to Paris - Luigi Dallapiccola's Opera Ill Prigioniero featured in the NYT
By John Kraljić, Esq | Published  04/25/2008 | Culture And Arts | Unrated
"Il Prigioniero" is dark, imposing and powerful
A 12-Tone Cry of Despair Assaults Hearts in Paris

Published: April 23, 2008

PARIS - Many directors of American opera companies would never even consider presenting Luigi Dallapiccola's one-act "Prigioniero," a bleak, 12-tone, boldly modernistic work from the mid-20th century about a despairing prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition. But unlike many of his timid counterparts, Gerard Mortier, the director of the Paris National Opera, has faith in audiences.

The bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, front, and the tenor Chris Merritt in "Ill Prigioniero" in Paris.
How many operagoers have actually heard "Il Prigioniero" or know about it other than from its intimidating reputation? So Mr. Mortier has mounted a new Italian-language production, which opened on April 10, directed by Lluis Pasqual at the opulent, Old World Palais Garnier. I attended an enthusiastically received performance on Monday night, and in this stark staging, with a compelling cast and the conductor Lothar Zagrosek drawing a rhapsodic, shimmering performance from the fine orchestra, "Il Prigioniero" emerged as an intensely dramatic, musically arresting and grimly moving work.

Dallapiccola had a personal connection to the subject matter. He was born to Italian parents in 1904 in a town now part of Croatia. His father was headmaster of an Italian-language school. But because of ethnic and regional conflicts the family was interned in Austria for a period during World War I. During World War II the composer, who was openly anti-Fascist, was forced for a time into hiding in Italy.

"Il Prigioniero," composed during the mid-1940s to Dallapiccola's own libretto, is a protest work lasting less than an hour. The simple story concerns a Spaniard who has been imprisoned during the Inquisition. Visited by his tormented mother, he tells her that during the height of his suffering he was befriended at the prison by a jailer who called him brother, "fratello." But after fleeting moments when the prisoner believes he will escape, he falls into the arms of the jailer, who is revealed to be the Grand Inquisitor himself. For the duped prisoner having hope has been the ultimate torture.

Evgeny Nikitin as Dallapiccola’s prisoner at the Palais Garnier.
After beginning his career composing in a richly chromatic, quasi-tonal language, Dallapiccola became the leading exponent of 12-tone technique and serialism in Italy by the 1950s. But a composer cannot grow up in Italy without succumbing to that opera-mad country's feeling for lyricism. The 12-tone musical style of "Il Prigioniero" is certainly complex - tremulous with astringent harmonies and fraught with skittish thematic lines. Yet Dallapiccola used the 12-tone language in a sensually lyrical way. Vocal lines sing and plead. Chords are stacked with intervals that produce plaintively consoling sustained harmonies.

And even during fitful outbursts the writing for the orchestra is never clogged with counterpoint or needlessly fussy. Everything is audible, textures are lucid. Truly the music should hardly be more challenging to audiences than Berg's "Wozzeck," which was just presented at the Paris National Opera in a well-attended and successful production.

Mr. Pasqual's staging of "Il Prigioniero," with sets by Paco Azorin and costumes by Isidre Prunes, is dark, imposing and powerful. In the first scene we see the mother, the mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright, who brought anguished vocal colorings and fierce intensity to her portrayal, treading her way to the prison, hobbled with grief as she walked on a shifting section of the stage floor that keep her, metaphorically, stuck in place. Barely visible behind her is the prison, a gargantuan construction of slatted walls and staircases that slowly rotates.

When we meet the prisoner, the stentorian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin in an impassioned portrayal, he is tattered, bloodied and exhausted. A harrowing choral scene depicting the inmates takes place within the rotating prison, though the audience's view is inhibited by the slatted walls.

But enough is visible to make the moment gruesome. A bare-chested prisoner, suspended upside down from a rope tied to his ankles, is pushed back and forth by brutish guards with clubs as if he were a human pinata. The other prisoners look on in horror. The choral director, Alessandro Di Stefano, is visible. Yet his conducting of the prisoners becomes a visual metaphor for their servitude.

In the final scene, when the jailer, the dynamic tenor Chris Merritt in a coolly menacing performance, morphs into the Grand Inquisitor, he removes his clerical robe and is revealed as a priest-doctor in a white lab coat, syringe in hand. The prisoner is strapped to a gurney and administered a lethal injection. In the final line of the opera, he sings, "La liberta?" More than worthless hope, death would seem to hold the only promise of freedom.

One challenge in presenting "Il Prigioniero" is finding a work to pair it with, to make a full evening of theater. This production began intriguingly with Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon," a 15-minute piece composed in 1942. The work is a setting of Byron's poem castigating the fall of a tyrant, in which the text is spoken by a reciter, accompanied by string quartet and piano. Schoenberg seized on the text to vent his antipathy to Nazism.

In this performance the text was spoken, with occasional half-sung phrases, by the American baritone Dale Duesing, dressed in drag like a 1920s Berlin cabaret singer, with the band nearby. During the course of his recitation, which broke into bouts of hectoring, Mr. Duesing gradually changed costumes, slowly putting on the striped uniform of a concentration-camp prisoner.

The performance was compelling, and the piece set the mood for the Dallapiccola opera. But I can think of another tragic, 20th-century, one-act Italian opera about a prisoner that might be performed in a double-bill with "Il Prigioniero." How about Puccini's "Suor Angelica," which tells of a young Italian woman banished for life to a convent after having a child out of wedlock? She too is visited by a relative, her aunt. And death is similarly presented as the only sure path to freedom.

"Il Prigioniero" runs through May 6 at the Palais Garnier in Paris; 011 33 892 89 90 90 or


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