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Ionarts at Large: Pfitzner's Palestrina in Munich

Intendant Klaus Bachler has brought Pfitzner’s Magnum Opus, “Palestrina” back to the stage of the Bavarian State Opera where it had been premiered 92 years ago. Although co-produced with the Hamburg State Opera, this was to be a “Munichean affair”, and Bachler hand picked Christian Stückl, a Bavarian wood carver-cum-theater director probably best known for being in charge of the Oberammergau Passion Play.

By his own admission, Stückl, doesn’t much like “Palestrina”, finding more redeeming qualities even in Salieri’s “La Cifra”. No one will blame him for trashing the libretto, though, written by Pfitzner himself and amounting to little more than brutally purple, pseudo-Wagnerian prose from which one could quote at length to humorous effect.

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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.

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 most that are left. For a theater director being in charge, there was surprisingly little coordination of the singers’ acting. The monochromatic stage and costumes—black, white, hot pink, and absinth green—by Stefan Hageneier, were visually appealing at first, but became gimmicky by the time the three-and-a-half hours of music concluded.

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… but at least it offers plenty action. The third act, with strong shades of Parsifal, is most satisfying musically and—refreshingly—only thirty minutes long.

Musically, matters were in solid hands with Simone Young, decisively navigating the Bavarian State Orchestra through two acts before losing focus in the third. But one could not help to wonder what might have been made of this, had Bachler 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 were outstanding in the otherwise evenly good Munich cast: Most notably the Bernardo Novagerio of John Daszak, whose controlled and comfortable tenor rang with clarity throughout. Christiane Kart brought a much needed high voice to this opera without female characters, and her Ighino, the son of Palestrina, was bright and strong, with a young and tightly-luscious vibrato anywhere above her weaker low register.

“In-house baritone” Michael Volle was his usual compelling self as Morone, bass Peter Rose hit even the lowest of Pope Pius IV’s low notes with seeming ease, and tenor Christopher Ventris in the title role was commendable, but paled a bit next to the ruthlessly booming baritone Falk Struckmann who apparently so takes to his role as Carlo Borromeo that he’ll perform it again when the Frankfurt Opera premieres its Pfitzner in June.

There are many better operas more 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.

All pictures © Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera

A photo-journal of "Palestrina", put together by Matt Blank, can be found at Playbill

Recommended Recording:

available at Amazon
Pfitzner, Palestrina, R.Kubelik / BRSO / Fischer-Dieskau, Fassbaender, Prey, Donath, Weikl et al.

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