Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

I've Got the Music in Me

July 12, 2009

Act II from Palestrina
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I get e-mailed questions all the time about opera. Take for instance this popular gem, “Brian, How come there has never been an operatic version of The Council of Trent?” Of course, it provides me great satisfaction to let those readers know that in fact there is just such an opera, and, as you may have already guessed, it’s in German. It’s the second Act of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, a rather problematic work from a problematic composer that has lived on to this day in revivals primarily in the German-speaking world such as the one that has been running in Munich this year under the musical direction of Simone Young. And while Pfitzner milks more yucks than you can shake a stick at from inter-Cardinal conflict, this hour long scene is strangely out of place in the middle of a theater work that otherwise has nothing to do with the topic. The first and brief third act of Palestrina are, in fact, about the 16th-century Italian composer of the same name. This nearly separate narrative concerns a crisis of artistic inspiration and faith in Palestrina’s composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli, perhaps his most famous work and one that his supporters hope will the make the case for the continued approval of polyphonic music in the rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, Palestrina comes through in the opera—composing the mass, saving polyphony in the church, and getting the approval of Pope Pius IV, all with the intervention of an angelic host and the spirit of his dead wife. It’s actually very operatic stuff for something with a happy ending.

Christopher Ventris
Photo: Wifried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

It’s a deliberately romantic throwback and is firmly rooted in the musical language of Wagner, and Pfitzner’s contemporary, Richard Strauss. Young, the musical director of the Hamburg opera, seems very at home with the piece, even compared to the opera’s most recent advocate, Christian Thielemann, who led the work in the 90s in both London and New York. And Palestrina can be very beautiful especially in its depiction of Palestrina’s overcoming a perceived obsolescence with a major artistic achievement. The current Munich production, directed by Christian Stückl is a bracing vision of black and white with grabbing splashes of neon pink and green. When electric green angels arrive to inspire Palestrina to write a mass he is not interested in, it feels like a major intervention. Stückl’s vision owes more than a little to Achim Freyer including an interest in masks and kabuki-inspired make up. Certain elements are intentionally amateurish in their design to draw attention to their artifice as well, including cardboard cutout stretch limousines that herald in the Pope and others. I found the production consistently interesting, though, and luckily it was the third opera I saw in Munich this week being filmed for a later DVD release.

The Palestrina in this revival is British tenor Christopher Ventris, who sounded like a million bucks here and made the necessary acting commitment to this role. There were many, many other strong supporting voices in this huge cast including Peter Rose, Michael Volle, and Falk Struckmann. But perhaps the voice that most grabbed my attention was that of Christiane Karg who sang the role of Palestrina’s son Ighino. She had the thankless task of singing a part that provides little more than cheerleading and exposition with regards to the other characters on stage. But somehow, Karg made Ighino seem like the moral center of the work. Her lengthy scenes at the bookends of the opera were some of the strongest, and her clear and piercing tone was lovely.

Should Palestrina have a broader acceptance than it does already? Well, maybe not. It certainly was interesting to see in light of the "Recovered Voices" series of operas being produced here in L.A. under the auspices of James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera precisely because it lies outside of that rubric. Pfitzner was a musically reactionary nationalist, who actually benefited from his, at times, positive relationship with the Third Reich and would certainly not fit into a group of artists whose work may have suffered under the Nazis. He's not shared the best reputation musically or otherwise since that time. However, his opera is an excellent example of late romanticism and provides some insight into the development of German music in the first half of the 20th century. Certainly this is a future DVD worth seeing.

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