Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, III: Clitennestra

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“Il rimorso di Oreste” by Giordio di Chirico

PIZZETTI: Clitennestra / Clara Petrella, soprano (Clittenestra); Luisa Malagrida, soprano (Cassandra); Mario Petri, bass (Agamennone); Raffaele Arié, bass (Egisto); Floriana Cavalli, soprano (Elettra); Ruggero Bondino, tenor (Oreste); Rena Garazioti, soprano (Cilissa); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Oreste’s assistant); Piero de Palma, tenor (A Herald); Virgilio Carbonari, baritone (Una scolta); Laura Londi, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Walter Gullino, tenor (Primo corifeo); Alfredo Giacomotti, bass-baritone (Secondo corifeo); Anna Novelli, soprano (1st Priestess of Artemis); Luciana Piccolo, mezzo-soprano (2nd Priestess of Artemis); Antonio Zerbini, bass (Un vecchio del coro); Teatro alla Scana, Milan Orch. & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: March 1, 1965)

Pizzetti in 1964

We now move forward to the mid-1960s. Here, near the end of his long life, Pizzetti wrote what many consider his greatest masterpiece based on Greek legend, Clittenestra. It is sometimes referred to as “the Italian Elektra,” but there are considerable differences between the operas of Pizzetti and Strauss. For one thing, it is the queen who is the central character, not the daughter. For another, Pizzetti chose to end the opera by having Orestes go into exile after having murdered his mother to, as the composer put it, “look for himself through his own tormented life, a valid reason for redemption, considering a desperate and inexorable condemnation right.” Andrea Della Corte thought this ending to be the least convincing part of the opera, characterized by “declaimed recitative of the text and expressive harmonistic concomitance,” but personally it doesn’t bother me and, from a dramatic standpoint, it certainly makes sense.

But alas, like Ifegenia, it has eluded further performances after the composer’s death in 1968 and a modern stereo recording. Again, however, I must stress that it is extremely difficult to find modern singers who can both sing with excellent techniques and also declaim dramatically without harming their delicate vocal equipment.

Petrella as Clitennestra

Clara Petrella as Clitennestra

The cast here is virtually flawless. Clara Petrella, an exceptional Italian soprano whose acting skills were so great that she was called “the Duse of opera,” gives the performance of her life in the title role. Mario Petri, a fine singing actor if not quite on the level of Rossi-Lemeni, sings a convincing Agamemnon while the often-underrated bass Raffaele Arié sings Aegisthus. Both Luisa Malagrida and Floriana Cavalli are surprisingly excellent as the seer Cassandra and Elektra. In the case of Fedra, the conductor is again Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who pulls the work together in a taut, dramatic reading. Since the Prelude to the opera was not only in awful sound but badly truncated, missing about 3 ½ minutes’ worth of music, I inserted the recording of this piece—the only part of the opera to be recorded in stereo—by Myron Michailidis and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra.

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Alas, without a synopsis or libretto, I can’t go into too much detail on what is being sung here, but anyone familiar with the story will undoubtedly be able to follow the plot. Sad to say, there is no bloodcurdling scream when Orestes kills Clytemnestra; you might imagine that he killed her in her sleep, while in bed with Aegisthus. To compensate, there’s a neat mother-daughter confrontation between Clytemnestra and Elektra that doesn’t appear in the Strauss opera. To compensate for the lack of a text, I am happy to present here the first page of the score which was available for free online.

Clitennestra_page_1

Clitennestra 3

A pleasant mother-daughter chat between Clitennestra (Petrella) and Elettra (Cavalli) in Act II

Like Elektra, Pizzetti’s music here is almost constantly on edge. The tension is palpable and he creates a fascinating web of sound in the orchestra to accompany the drama, thus the advances he made in Ifigenia are brought to fruition here. It’s almost incredible to think that during the period in which he wrote this opera he was between 82 and 84 years old. Sadly, he died just before the revival of the work in 1968 which, so far as I can tell, was the last time it was staged.

There are so many extraordinary passages in the score that it would take three long paragraphs to describe them all. Better you should just listen and hear for yourself. Although there are no arias in the strict sense of the word, there are several sung monologues, and in these Pizzetti, for once, used a more lyrical and less parlando style—including some climactic high notes. This heightens the excitement of the drama without really making the performers break character in order to soliloquize.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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