The life and martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket has inspired many works of literature, going back at least as far as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which the story-telling pilgrims are on their way to visit the famous tomb of the murderered Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the more recent works was T. S. Eliot's rather austere play Murder in the Cathedral, influenced by Eliot's rediscovery of his Christian faith and an interest in ancient Greek tragedy. Fifty years ago this year (March 1958), composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) premiered an operatic version of Eliot's play. The composer, who has a score of operas (a few unfinished) to his name, wrote his own libretto, adapted from Mons. Alberto Castelli's Italian translation of Eliot's English. It is not one of the great operas of the 20th century, but this production makes a good argument that it should perhaps be heard more than it is. Pizzetti, one of Italy's Generazione dell'Ottanta, has a more modal vocabulary, drawn from his fascination with Gregorian chant and other early music, than many early 20th-century composers.
I. Pizzetti, Assassinio nella cattedrale, R. Raimondi, Orchestra Sinfonica della Provincia di Bari, P. Morandi
(released April 15, 2008)
Decca 074 3253
This performance was presented in a church quite akin to Becket's Canterbury, the Basilica di S. Nicola in Bari, and in December, around the same time as the action. The place was a major pilgrimage destination, also like Canterbury after Becket's assassination, because of the tomb of St. Nicholas, as seen in a painting by Gentile da Fabriano now in the National Gallery of Art. Ruggiero Raimondi is an intense, authoritarian Becket, matched by a capable, if less stellar supporting cast. Paoletta Marrocu, heard as Lady Macbeth in 2007, is as potent as always, but with a slight shrillness not entirely unappropriate for the role, one of the lead women of Canterbury. The chorus, from the Conservatorio Piccinni di Bari, is strong in the very important role of the Greek chorus. The only regret is the sound, which has to be the least flattering sound ever captured in a similar acoustic, which cannot be as leaden and echoing as it is presented here. Also, video director Tiziano Mancini should have refrained from inserting unrelated images, staged scenes in slow motion that add nothing to the dramatic impact and are kind of silly.