Discovering Dallapiccola’s “Il Prigioniero”

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DALLAPICCOLA: Il Prigioniero. Canti di prigionio* / Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano (The Mother); Howard Haskin, tenor (Jailer/Grand Inquisitor); Jorma Hynninen, baritone (The Prisoner); Sven-Erik Alexandersson, tenor (First Priest); Lage Wedin, baritone (Second Priest);  Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; *add Swedish Radio Choir; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor / Sony Classical 886446813318

These are the kinds of discoveries I really enjoy. I started out by seeing a new recording of this opera in the Naxos Catalog of upcoming releases, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, a conductor I really like, but when I checked out the principal singers on YouTube both the soprano and tenor had bad wobbles. So then I noticed, also on YouTube, a recording from a couple of years ago on Oehms Classics. The soprano didn’t have a wobble, but her voice was very shrill, and both the tenor and the baritone had wobbles. Yet I was still leaning towards reviewing that recording instead when suddenly, out of nowhere, a few tracks from the above-listed recording suddenly appeared before me. Listening to a few of them, I realized that I had found the best recording.

A little history. This recording was originally released a quarter of a century ago, which would be 1995. As someone who still has vivid memories from the 1950 and ’60s, which are really ancient history, this kind of scares me. The mere thought that 1995 was 25 years ago kind of makes 2020 the future for 1995, and the way things have gone this year, between the Coronavirus, murder hornets and cop killings of innocent victims, I almost long for those halcyon days when the worst thing in our lives was Bill Clinton decimating the middle class with NAFTA and CAFTA.

In that world where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class began to disappear, I was poor. I scrambled for menial jobs, one after another as they came my way, trying to keep my head above water, and one thing I had to forego in order to pay the bills was not to buy very many CDs, so when this came out—a work I’d never even heard of before—I really wasn’t willing to shell out $16 to discover if I’d like it or not. When this recording was reissued by Sony a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find it for download or streaming on the Naxos website for reviewers. Sony loves to have their product promoted by Naxos but is loath to share review copies with any but the “big name” reviewing venues.

Dallapiccola wrote this opera between 1944 and 1948 and intended it, originally at least, as an opera for radio. It premiered in that format in 1949, the same year as Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief. The only previous radio operas I have been able to unearth were Kurt Weill’s folk opera Down in the Valley from 1945 and Montemezzi’s L’Incantesimo in 1943, although the latter wasn’t actually written as a radio opera. It just premiered on NBC in 1943 because the composer couldn’t get it staged in Mussolini’s Italy and New York opera companies thought it too much of a gamble. Wikipedia informs us that Il prigioniero was also one of the first atonal operas ever written, preceded only by Berg’s two operas (of which only Wozzeck premiered before 1949) and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (which didn’t premiere until after his death in 1951). I would point out that it is atonal but not serial: Dallapiccola does indeed repeat notes within the 12-tone row and thus does not adhere strictly to Schoenberg’s dictum. This actually makes the opera more lyrical and appealing.

The plot of this opera is riveting. Set in Saragossa in the latter half of the 16th century, it opens with a mother waiting to visit her son in prison. She recalls a recurring dream she has had in which King Philip II (yes, the same dude who made his son’s and the Marquis di Posa’s lives a living hell in Don Carlo) approaches her from the end of a cavern, but changes imperceptibly into Death. The Mother’s singing becomes hysterical, and the offstage chorus cuts her off, bringing the end of the prologue.

In the main body of the opera, to quote Wikipedia,

The first scene opens inside a cell in the Inquisitor’s Prison with the Prisoner and his Mother speaking. The Prisoner speaks of his torture and suffering, and also of how the Jailer has brought back his hope and faith, and has made him wish to return to prayer as he did as a child. The Jailer then interrupts the conversation with news that Flanders is in revolt and that the bell of Roelandt could soon ring out again, trying to bring new hope to the Prisoner. As the Jailer leaves with the words “There is one who watches over you … Have faith, brother. Sleep now … and hope,” he also does not close the cell door completely. Upon noticing this, the Prisoner rushes out.

The action moves out of the cell and follows the Prisoner on his attempt at escape through the underground passages of the prison. While trying to escape, he sees but is not seen by a torturer and is passed unnoticed by two monks too deep in theological discussion to notice him. The Prisoner finally believes he can smell fresh air, and when he hears a bell he believes to be that of Roelandt, he opens a door to what he hopes is freedom.

The final scene finds the Prisoner in a garden at night. He is exuberant at having escaped, and moves towards a great cedar tree that is in the foreground. He makes as if to hug the tree, only to be embraced by the words and sight of the Grand Inquisitor, who is seemingly a part of the tree. The Grand Inquisitor asks the Prisoner, “Why do you want to leave us now, on the very eve of your salvation?” At this point, the Prisoner comes around to the thought that perhaps his ultimate salvation is to be gained from the stake. The opera concludes with the Prisoner’s enigmatic whisper of “Freedom?”

The opera, then, uses a combination of harsh realism and mystical symbolism. If the prisoner physically escapes alive, he knows that he will be hunted down, whereas if he is burned at the stake his earthly sufferings are over. Of course, a lot of this depends on your own belief in an afterlife in heaven, which I personally find nonsensical and unreal, but whether you believe in heaven or not, you may believe in the words of the Buddha: “Birth brings great suffering; death brings release.” So there are two ways to look at it.

Salonen’s conducting, as usual, is taut and exciting, but perhaps in this one respect (the conducting) the recording is not that much better than the others mentioned in the first paragraph. It is the singing that is greatly superior. Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who sings the role of the Mother, was born in 1945 and made a specialty of singing out-of-repertoire music. I first encountered her back in the 1980s on a New World album of songs and instrumental works by Charles Tomlinson Griffes and thought she had a very attractive voice, albeit with a slight flutter. On this recording, the flutter is gone, and she is her usual expressive self. Baritone Jorma Hynninen, who sings the role of the Prisoner, was four years older than Bryn-Julson, yet his voice, too, was rock-solid in this performance. As I’ve often said, singing modern opera is really no different from singing the classics if you have a solid technique and a good voice. Modern opera does NOT “wear out” the voice any more than singing Wagner wears out the voice. It all depends on how much you’re pushing that voice. If you’re not straining, you’re doing the voice no harm. Evelyn Lear’s famous complaint that singing the music of Berg wrecked her voice stems from just one role, that of Lulu, which was almost an octave too high for her to comfortably sing. It was that role that wrecked her voice because it lay outside her normal range.

Although the music is clearly modern and does not use conventional melodic lines, it is not nearly as forbidding as the music of Moses und Aron or Lulu. Dallapiccola had an Italianate sense of lyricism that kept him from writing music that was too spiky for its own good, though of course the tense dramatic plot cried out for this kind of treatment. Perhaps because of this, the opera attracted some really excellent singers. In the 1950 stage premiere the mother was sung by Magda László, the Prisoner by baritone Scipio Colombo, the Jailer/Grand Inquisitor by Mario Binci and the two priests by Mariano Caruso and Giangiacomo Guelfi. The 1960 American premiere, given at New York City Center and conducted by Leopold Stokowski, featured Anne McKnight, Richard Cassilly and Norman Treigle in the cast. In its first dozen years after the 1949 premiere, Il prigioniero was given 186 performances on the radio, stage and concert platform—yet it has inexplicably disappeared except for the odd European revival nowadays.

Perhaps most impressively, this studio recording has the feel of a live performance. I ascribe this to the performances of Bryn-Julson, Hynninen and tenor Howard Haskin. I’ve watched and listened to two of the live stage performances uploaded on YouTube, and neither one comes close to this one in terms of its combination of emotional projection and perfectly-controlled singing. The only slight drawback is that none of these singers are native speakers of Italian, which makes their pronunciation acceptable in a studied manner but not completely idiomatic.

Canti di prigionia, given here as an encore piece, consists of three texts—a prayer by Mary Stuart, an extract from Book Three of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Savonarola’s unfinished Meditation on the Psalm “My hope is in Thee, O Lord—set for chorus, two pianos, two harps and percussion. The three songs were written between 1938 and 1941as a reaction to Mussolini’s racist policies and how he, like many Italians, felt themselves to be prisoners in their own country. Dallapiccola developed the material and some musical ideas for Il prigioniero, but this work clearly stands on its own. In the first song, one of the pianos softly plays the Dies irae theme while the chorus sings soft, wordless chords in the background before coming forward to sing. It’s almost like a funereal version of Carmina Burana with no joy or celebration, only sadness, very deep sadness. In this choral song trilogy, the music is even more lyrical and tonally-biased than in Il prigioniero. It is the third song that is the most powerful, extroverted and atonal, as if Dallapiccola could no longer contain his emotions in tonality.

This is clearly an exceptional recording, one that every lover of good modern opera should obtain.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Discovering Dallapiccola’s “Il Prigioniero”

  1. YB Schragadove says:

    It should be noted that Antal Dorati’s Decca recording, released in 1975, was the opera’s first studio recording and is available on CD on the Australian Eloquence label (4808781).

    Like

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