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Erwin Schott [Photo by Riccardo Musacchio and Flavio Ianniello]
12 May 2009

Verdi and Boito at the Rome Academy of Santa Cecilia — Angels and Demons in an Unusual Setting

By sheer coincidence, the Academy of Santa Cecilia — one of the most authoritative symphonic orchestras in Europe — planned a rather unusual concert in the same days (May 3-7) when just in the very same auditorium there was the world première of a movie expected to be a Hollywood blockbuster — the thriller titled “Angels & Demons”.

Ludwìg van Beethoven: Symphony n. 1; Giuseppe Verdi: Te Deum; Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele Prologo in Cielo

Erwin Schott, bass; Donika Mataj, soprano. Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Children Chorus of Accademia di Santa Cecilia e Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Band della Guarda di Finanza. Conductor: Antonio Pappano.

Above: Erwin Schott [Photo by Riccardo Musacchio and Flavio Ianniello]


In addition, Maestro Antonio Pappano gave to the concert a title quite similar to that of the movie: “Angels & Demons”. This did ingenerate some confusion in the press. Opera Today seldom deals with symphonic concerts. However, this was a very special opportunity: an appetizer of what Pappano could do if he would conduct a fully fledged performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. I do not know whether Pappano has ever conducted the full opera in a stage performance.

Mefistofele is an “opéra maudite”, viz . an opera over which a bad spell seem to hang . It was a fiasco when his 7-hours-plus first version was premiered on March 5 1868. It was a major hit when drastically revised, the present version (about two and a half hours of music) was stage on October 4 1875 in Bologna. This second version was successful nearly until World War Two. Then, it disappeared nearly all over. In the USA, I remember a good production constructed by the York City Opera around the bass Norman Triegle in the 1970s. In Italy, only a few conductors (Riccardo Muti, Stefano Ranzani, Nicola Colabianchi) appear to like it. A few years ago Mefistofele was produced at La Scala but only for a few performances. In 2005 it was on the stage of the small Maruccino theatre of a little provincial town, Chieti; there Maestro Colabianchi took up the challenge. A few months later, Maestro Muti conducted two open air concert performances of excerpts of the opera in Ravenna and Tunisia. In 2007, a glittering Giancarlo Del Monaco production inaugurated the season of the Palermo’s Teatro Massimo with Maestro Ranzani in the pit.

I consider Mefistofele an uneven masterpiece , the only real attempt - with the second part of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony - to capture the spirit of Goethe’s poetry. Of course, only an attempt due to the immensity of Goethe’s Faust. There are naïve parts and uncertainties - something rough, not fully polished. But this adds to its charm.

Even in the decades when Mefistofele was hardly seen on stage, “The Prologue in Heaven” was often performed as a concert piece. It is a 25 minutes superb summary of what will happen next in the opera. Maestro Pappano , and the orchestra and chorus of the Santa Cecilia chorus- as well as the Rome children chorus - provided a real heavenly panoply in the opening of the “The Prologue”. The trumpet fanfares were sumptuous, the percussion thunderous, the brass and harps angelic: the audience felt to be in the Celestial Heights. Then with arrival of the Uruguayan bass Elwin Schott and his sarcastic and burlesque “Scherzo” we were taken down- to Hell. Schott is a bass with a well-tempered timbre; his grumblings sound even more blasphemous than in Triegle’s or Furlanetto’s performances. Pappano , the orchestra and the double chorus reach solemnity in the “Chorus Mysticus” scene immediately followed by a sharp confrontation in the challenge scene to ascend again to Celestial Heights when the Cherubins arrive and chase the tempter. A vibrant full of fire conducting which makes me ask for more, for a full production. The concert hall has 2800 seats ; the audience was enthusiastic.

Mefistofele’s “Prologue” was precede by a rarely performed Verdi’s Te Deum . Verdi was a tormented atheist, whilst Boito was a deeply rooted and contented atheist. His Te Deum is a late composition - first performed in 1898 when he was well in his 80s. It was not an old man’s search for after-life-peace. With a bit of irony , Verdi wrote that it was meant as the Audience’s (with capital “A”) Thanksgiving for not having to listen to his opera any longer . Twenty years after his Requiem, Verdi is back in Church but once more, like in a melodrama his music deals with human, very human passions more than with Godly feelings. The Chorus is a grand-opera chorus counterpointed by a soprano voice and a masterly orchestration . Pappano is, first of all, an operatic conductor. Hence his highly dramatic.

The initial part of the concert was Beethoven’s First Symphony. Pappano lengthened the tempos: the symphony lasted nearly 45 minutes instead of the 30-35 in most recorded performances . He added pathos in the “adagio” and “andante con brio” but last the Haydn’s and Mozart’s XVII century elegance in the “minuetto”.

Giuseppe Pennisi

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