Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

Tristan, English National Opera

My first Tristan, indeed my first Wagner, in the theatre was ENO’s previous staging of the work, twenty years ago, in 1996. The experience, as it should, as it must, although this is alas far from a given, quite overwhelmed me.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
26 Jan 2009

Pfitzner's Palestrina at Bavarian State Opera

Writer Jens F. Laurson reports from Munich, where a new staging of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina opened Jan. 19 at the National Theater. The rarely-performed 1917 three-act opera stars Christopher Ventris in the title role.

Hans Pfitzner: Palestrina

Christopher Ventris (Palestrina), Christian Stückl (Regie). Bayerische Staatsoper, Simone Young (cond.)

Above: Christopher Ventris as Palestrina

All photos by Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bavarian State Opera.

 

By Jens F. Laurson, Playbill Arts, 23 January 2009

The composer Hans Pfitzner, born 140 years ago, remains a controversial figure even 60 years after his death. Not his music - an uncontroversially beautiful, high-romantic blend of Schumann and Wagner occasionally reminiscent of Humperdinck, Schoeck, Schreker, and Schmidt - but the political persona.

Somewhere between stubborn, naïve and ignorant, he uttered unambiguously racist phrases, was apologetic of Hitler and blamed everyone but Germany for World War II. He parroted anti-Semitic thoughts yet he went to great lengths to help and save “good Jews” (as he thought of them) like director Otto Ehrhardt, Felix Wolfes (a student of his) and his friend Paul Crossmann for whom he rang up Reinhard Heydrich to save (in vain).

Pope_Ventris.pngPeter Rose, as Pope Pius IV with Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
He tried to ingratiate himself with the Nazi regime but was inconsistent about it and offended more with his arrogance than he pleased with his favors. The composer ended up ignored, if not shunned, by the officialdom of the Third Reich. He dedicated works to Jewish artists like Bruno Walter, Arthur Eloesser and Alma Mahler, yet was capable of writing a cantata to Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland.

Thomas Mann, who admired his opera Palestrina (which he attended at its Munich premiere in 1917), thought him an “anti-democratic nationalist,” Hitler spoke of him derisively as a “Jewish rabbi,” and friend Bruno Walter stopped communicating with him when Pfitzner showed himself unrepentant after the war.

We gather that he was difficult to like. Bruno Walter probably said it best when he wrote to his publisher, after Pfitzner’s death: “Have we not found in [Pfitzner’s] personality the strangest mix of true greatness and intolerance that has ever made the life of a musician of such a rank so problematic?”

But the music of Pfitzner is too good to ignore, and in this anniversary year, three German Opera companies staged Pfitzner. Chemnitz tackled the largely forgotten, largely forgettable Die Rose vom Liebesgarten in a very professional staging. The Frankfurt and Munich Operas work on a different scale, of course, and they tackle Pfitzner’s Magnum Opus, Palestrina.


The subject is the 16th century composer Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina who prevents music being banned from church service at the council of Trent through his ingenious mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, written under distress, angelic influence and breaking his writer’s block. A sub-plot has his student Silla decide that the old master’s traditional ways are not suited to his creative endeavors and plans to move to that secular sin-city of free roaming artists: Florence.

Ventris2.pngChristopher Ventris as Palestrina

This would be a fine opportunity to stage the conflict of art and politics and the tension of traditional and modern art in times of renewal. That potential was undoubtedly what fascinated Thomas Mann and Bruno Walter at the premiere. And indeed, it could be terrific sujet, but Pfitzner wastes more opportunities than he takes, and Stückl’s superficial production misses those that are left.

For a theatre director being in charge, there is surprisingly little coordination of the singers’ acting. The monochromatic stage and costumes - black, white, hot pink, and absinthe green - by Stefan Hageneier, are visually appealing at first, but they simplify unduly and become gimmicky by the time the three-and-a-half hours of music conclude.

Stückl, who by his own admission doesn’t much like Palestrina and loathes the libretto in particular, treats the religious subject matter and the Council of Trent - a-historical as Pfitzner may have put it together - as a farce. That tends to compound, not solve, the opera’s inherent weaknesses.

One of the problems of Palestrina is that there is too much text for the music and too little action for the text. The first act, 100 minutes, is overlong and its drama moves tediously. The next act sounds and reads like a secular second coming of Die Meistersinger. Instead of zooming in on the conflict of arts and politics, it is 70 minutes of clerical Barnum & Bailey in robes… at least in this particular staging. The third act, with strong shades of Parsifal, is most satisfying musically and a refreshing thirty minutes long.

Musically, matters are in solid hands with Simone Young, decisively navigating the Bavarian State Orchestra through two acts before losing focus in the third. But one can not help but wonder what might have come had the company managed to make this truly a Munich affair and lure Christian Thielemann - to whom Pfitzner’s idiom speaks so well - into the pit. Troubled operas need all the help they can get and Pfitzner’s music needs great performances to appear great. Merely competent outings smother its potential.

Some singers are outstanding in the otherwise evenly-good Munich cast, most notably the Bernardo Novagerio of John Daszak, whose controlled and comfortable tenor rings with clarity throughout. Christiane Kart brings a much-needed high voice to this opera without female characters, and her Ighino, the son of Palestrina, is bright and strong, with a young and tightly-luscious vibrato anywhere above her weaker low register.

There are many better operas more severely neglected and many worse operas performed more often. It’s good to have Palestrina back in Munich, but Pfitzner ultimately needs a more sympathetic and concentrated treatment to convince those who don’t already believe in the work’s flawed greatness.

[This review originally appeared in Playbill Arts. It is reprinted with permission of the author and Playbill Arts.]

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):