Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, II: Ifigenia


PIZZETTI: Ifigenia / Rosanna Carteri, soprano (Ifigenia); Fiorenzo Cossotto, mezzo-soprano (Clitennestra); Ottorino Begali, tenor (Achille); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Agamennone); Jolanda Michieli, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Guido Mazzini, baritone (Altro corifeo); Teatro la Fenice Chorus & Orch.; Nino Sanzogno, conductor / live: 1960; available for free streaming on YouTube

There was a considerable gap—35 years, to be exact—between Pizzetti’s Fedra and his Ifigenia, during which time he wrote six other operas and a ton of instrumental music.

Pizzetti c. 1947

Pizzetti c. 1947

Since the plot that he chose for this opera concerns just one incident, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigénie to the gods in order to ensure smooth sailing for his fleet in the Trojan war, Pizzetti chose to keep it short, only 50 minutes. Moreover, he initially conceived it as a radio opera without staging, and it received its premiere in this format at the RAI auditorium on October 3, 1950. The cast included Rosanna Carteri as Ifigenia, Elena Nicolai as Clitennestra, Aldo Bertocci as Achille and Giacomo Vaghi as Agamennone with Fernando Previtali conducting. The opera was so well received, however, that a stage production was soon in the works. This premiere occurred at the Teatro Comunale in Florence on May 9, 1951; the only cast change was Antonio Annaloro as Achille. In this performance, the composer himself conducted.

There was another performance, this one recorded, given in 1956 with young Anna Moffo as Ifigenia, but Pizzetti, who also conducted this performance, was not as pleased by her interpretation. Thus, when this performance was given in Venice in 1960, Carteri was back as Ifigenia and Pizzetti’s new favorite basso, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, sang the crucial role of Agamennone.

Perhaps the most controversial cast change was that of the young mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto as Clitennestra. Although Cossotto had a much more beautiful voice than Nicolai, she was not nearly as well admired for her acting skills, but as in the case of the 1959 Fedra, conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni worked with her to bring out her best. The sound quality of the surviving tape is quite excellent for its time, in fact the clearest of the three Greek operas.

One interesting twist to the original story added by Pizzetti comes at the end. In an epilogue, when the mist descends to hide the sacrificial act is thinned out, a mysterious voice rises to ask why the eternal perpetuation of war. But there is no answer, and the same voice, after the intervention of the choir, which symbolically multiplies the painful question in several languages “Pourquoi? Por qué? Warum? Why? Quare?”, and chanting the prayer in Latin “Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, quis substinevit ?, irascaris, Domine. Dona nobis pacem” for all the victims and perpetrators of war.

Pizzetti, then, was clearly a pacifist, thus it must have angered and pained him when Mussolini, to whom he had sworn an oath in 1925, joined forced with Hitler and Hirohito to start World War II. Those who knew him said that the composer withdrew as much as possible from public life, though his new music was still performed, and in 1939 or 1940 Mussolini pressed him into writing a symphony honoring his new ally, Japan. But this was clearly not his own sentiment.

The writing in Ifigenia marks a considerable advance on Fedra; here, the musical lines are much more varied; indeed, the barked-out orders of Agamemnon dominate the early part of the opera, though they surprisingly shift towards a more lyrical, arioso style of writing. The somewhat edgy harmonies of the opera’s beginning shift, at the six-minute mark, to surprisingly jolly, tonal music, apparently celebrating the successful launch of the Greek fleet.

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri is simply magnificent as Ifigenia. She always did have a good-sized and attractive soprano voice, but here she also proves herself a fine vocal actress as well. Pizzetti’s continued variance of both the vocal line and, more importantly, the shifts in rhythm hold one’s attention from start to finish. It’s easy to hear why this short, compact opera made such a strong impression in the early 1950s.

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Yet for all the excellences of Carteri’s and Cossotto’s singing, it is clearly Rossi-Lemeni who dominates with his dramatically powerful performance. He never really had a “classic” bass voice; it was always very pointed, with a narrow focus and a strong baritonal quality. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that tenor Jonas Kaufmann sounds more like a bass than Rossi-Lemeni did, but he could always descend to the standard bass range (but not any further) when needed. I saw him on stage as Boris Godunov in the mid-1980s and, though his voice had dried out a bit and was somewhat weaker, you didn’t notice so much because his stage presence and his acting, both physically and with the voice, were so potent that they completely riveted your attention.

Pizzetti’s orchestral score, aside from the frequent harmonic and tempo changes, is also more colorful than in Fedra, using the brass and winds in an ingenious manner to create color and atmosphere. Mind you, this is not to criticize Fedra, which for its time and place was a major breakthrough in Italian opera (I wonder what Boito, who was still alive at the time, thought of it), but simply to point out that in the intervening decades Pizzetti had grown as an artist. In certain respects, Fedra was a more subtle score, but Ifigenia is more gripping dramatically. It has even more verismo elements in it, but verismo transformed into something more truly dramatic and less cheaply melodramatic. Note, for instance, how at 23:30 Pizzetti uses the chorus to sing a coarse, jingoistic “war march” that is almost as brutally effective as the opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

And, wonder of wonders, Ifigenia actually gets an aria near the end of the opera, just before the epilogue in which she says goodbye to life and love. Yes, it’s an aria that focuses more on the drama of the situation and not a “set-piece” where the soprano just stands there and warbles a pretty tune for three or four minutes, but an aria nonetheless…and Carteri sings it superbly.

This is quite an opera and quite a performance. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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