27 Aug 2005


I had never heard of the Italian composer Domenico Alaleona (1891-1928) when a recording of his opera Mirra arrived in the mail. Baker's gives him a respectable 22 lines, but says "his importance lies in his theoretical writings," not this opera or various collections of songs, instrumental works, and a Requiem. If you've ever come across the term "dodecaphony," well, Alaleona coined it (in Italian, of course).

Mirra (1920, Rome) is a setting of the final two acts of a tragedy by Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803). Alfieri was a major figure in the development of Italian literature. His fame rests on twenty-two tragedies, among them an Agamemnon, a Saul, and an Anthony and Cleopatra. He was also a spiritual godfather of the Risorgimento by way of the condemnations of tyranny that he put into the mouths of his characters. He enjoyed a long liaison with the wife of Charles Edward Stuart (Not-So-Bonnie Prince Charlie; he was really a big reprobate); after Stuart's death, they lived together, unwed, although, as one Catholic reference puts it, his "religious feelings ... always appeared strong and sincere"! Alfieri's works influenced early Italian translations of Shakespeare; Verdi wrote to Piave during their work on Macbeth that the "the lines [between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before Banquo's murder], especially at the end of the recitative, should be strong and concise, in the manner of Alfieri."

Mirra was based on one of Ovid's Metamorphses, wherein Mirra (there spelt Myrrha) harbors an incestuous passion for her father, Ciniro (Cinyras), king of Cypress. In Ovid, Myrrha 's father fixation is conjured up by Venus, who gets ticked off because Myrrha 's mother boasts that her daughter is more beautiful than the goddess. Deities are so sensitive. In that telling of the story, Myrrha conceives a child by her father: Adonis. You'll remember what happens to him when he grows up (it involves Venus). When Cinyras discovers that it wasn't his wife in his bed, he tries to kill Myrrha. The other gods figure they'd better resolve another of Venus's dirty tricks gone awry, so they turn Myrrha into the myrrh tree.

In Alfieri's version, Mirra is to be married to Prince Pereo, but like many brides, she gets cold feet, blames it on the furies if not a desire to see Arizona, and backs out at the altar. Her mother tries to comfort her, but Mirra says she loathes her. The entire last act is basically one long scene between Mirra and her father, angry because the prince has killed himself, so all the flowers and catering will definitely go to waste. When she finally breaks down and admits that he is the object of her infatuation, she grabs his sword and kills herself.

Alaleona stays pretty faithful to the last two acts of Alfieri's drama. Unfortunately, textual fidelity doesn't always make for exciting music drama. (Othmar Schoeck was a little more successful in his truncated setting of the last part of Kleist's Penthesilea.) The static first act for the most part just portrays long, drawn-out moping on Mirra's part, interrupted only by the wedding and her change of heart. It plays more as an oratorio than as an opera. The second act between Mirra and her father packs more dramatic oomph, though we doesn't find out until about five minutes from the end what she's been upset about the whole time, followed swiftly by her suicide and death. I'm afraid many listeners will shake their heads when the CD goes off and say, "So the whole thing is about a screwed-up offspring-parent infatuation?" Afraid so; if the dog barks at the mailman right when Mirra makes her big confession, you might miss that and still be confused. It ain't no Phaedra.

The music, which clocks in at a little under an hour and a half, for the most part matches the static quality of the text, though one phrase sung by the chorus sounds like it was lifted for Phantom of the Opera. Large sections of the first act resemble late Verdi; other passages nod toward Puccini, who reportedly admired Alaleona, as did Mascagni and Toscanini. The most interesting bit is the interlude at the opening of act 2, which would make an admirable concert excerpt. Here Alaleona used an instrument he called the "pentaphonic harmonium"--replaced in this recording by a celesta--that divided the octave into five equal intervals. Listening to the recording, most listeners probably won't realize that something funky is going on, just that the music is lushly late Romantic (which reminded me of Zemlinsky for some reason). The second act contains a few passages with added melodic pizzazz that go beyond the conversational style that characterizes much of the score.

This recording is characterized by excellent musicianship all around. The young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha moves the score along without letting it drag and bringing out the beauty of the act 2 interlude. Italian soprano Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni handles the rigors of Mirra's role well and manages to infuse her with pathos rather than making her sound pathetic. Tenor Mario Malagnini comes across as strident, but of course, the prince himself is strident once he's been dumped. Best of all is French baritone Franck Ferrari, who conveys a father's concern for his daughter, his anger at her behavior, and finally his horror at her misplaced feelings. The notes give an admirable analysis of Alaleona's style. This certainly isn't an opera that will ever be performed regularly, but it deserves the attention of lovers of Italian opera.

David Anderson