When this programme was first announced in January of last year, such is my regard for the piece that I immediately signed up to do the review on the strength of its containing a performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il prigioniero, without paying much attention to whatever else would be pressed into service as a coupling in order to pad out the work’s 45-minute running time. In fact, the solution – to a not-so-very difficult problem – turned out to be, musically, at least, the same as had been found by Esa-Pekka Salonen in his concert performance, given in the same hall in January 2012, with the Philharmonia: Beethoven. In Salonen’s case this took the form of the fifth symphony, played as a self-contained first-half before the interval (review of 2012 performance here: http://tinyurl.com/nvvqg7s.) Pappano’s choice – rather more structurally radical, if for different reasons no more successful – was to bookend the Dallapiccola between bits of Beethoven, commencing with the opening of Fidelio Act II up to the end of Florestan’s aria, and then running the quiet end of the opera straight into the opening of the third movement – followed by the finale – of the Ninth, opting to play the resulting 95’ sequence continuously.
I can’t say that this brought much by way of compare-and-contrast enlightenment, at least for me, the opera surely needing to burst upon us from nowhere, and even more necessarily end on its note of hushed, indeed, crushed, disillusionment, rather than have this immediately negated by the following 40 minutes of spiritual consolation and cosmic uplift from another time and place: almost as if poor Dallapiccola was too mere and gloomy a thing to leave us with without jollying up. Well, if the intention was to end with un raggio di sole, I’d say it was completely misguided Oddly, the one thing that did make some sense of the entire thing was the rubric that appeared on the South Bank Centre’s website, ostensibly containing the maestro’s rationale behind the enterprise: but that vanished once booking closed before the concert, and bizarrely was nowhere replicated in the (vapid and musically threadbare) programme notes accompanying the concert. Instead, Pappano himself made a three-minute podium speech outlining his ideas: but they weren’t the same ones that had appeared on the website, which had far more sense and substance to them than his faintly comical decision instead to emphasise the linking concept of “brotherhood” by singing the phrase “Fratello” from the opera in a whispered tenorial croon into a hand-mic that was little short of mortifying. And if the unspoken function of the Beethoven bits had been to sugar-coat the pill at the Box Office, it certainly failed to do so, with the hall virtually half-empty.
Salonen’s account of the score two-and-a-half years ago remains one of my abiding memories of great concert going in London, inestimably boosted by the decision to semi-stage the work, with costumes, moodily atmospheric lighting in a blacked-out auditorium and carefully delineated blocking of characters; and if you want to know more about the work, its genesis and significance, you could do worse than read my review of it for OpBrit via the link above.
But at this concert, none of these surely necessary adjuncts were bothered with at all: this was simply singers parked behind music stands in full light and evening dress. And Pappano is supposed to be a man of the theatre! Even with these self-inflicted disadvantages, I can imagine a performance still taking flight, given sufficient musical excellence of singing, conducting and playing. But the Italian orchestra, though decent, is no Philharmonia; its chorus certainly not the equal of any of London’s; and the soloists were, put bluntly, generic, and vocally either insufficient or unengaging. The best of them was Angeles Blancas Gulin, last heard locally massacring Adriana Lecouvreur at the ROH, but whose voice seems – on this showing at least – to have steadied somewhat since then, whilst retaining all of its terrific emotional power. She sang the role of the titular prisoner’s mother, who carries the opera’s opening 13 minutes, but who then thereafter vanishes. Paoletta Marrocu, for Salonen, was absolutely blinding: Gulin, who’d have benefitted most from the appurtenances of a semi-staging, was very good.
But the two principal roles are that of the prisoner himself, and his seemingly sympathetic jailer (who in fact turns out to be the Grand Inquisitor himself, no less, suavely (mis)leading the prisoner not to anticipated freedom but to death). Neither Louis Otey, a baritone with rather more furry flab than firmness about his sound, nor Stuart Skelton, a tenor of no great distinction of either voice or temperament, made anything much of their roles (the pair comprehensively outsung and outacted by Lauri Vasar and Peter Hoare respectively for Salonen). The baritone managed to get the words of the opening two lines of his inaugural verse of the Schiller “Ode to Joy” garbled, although kudos for knowing about the unwritten appoggiatura on “nicht diese Töne”, even if the töne” in question was both loose and ill-defined for one so relatively young. The tenor utterly puzzles me: on the unimpressive showing of both Florestan’s aria at the beginning – where he failed to get the notes of the aria’s admittedly cruel setting of “Freiheit ins himmlische Reich” across – and the Ninth’s finale’s military march episode (“Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen”) and its B-flats on the culminating “Siegen”, which never properly materialised, I have no idea why he seems to be being peddled as a heldentenor and lined up for taxing repertory which I would have thought him ill-equipped to serve adequately. But there it is….
Rachel Willis-Sorensen, who I thought made for a dismally pallid Countess indeed in Figaro at the ROH a couple of years ago, did no more than confirm the impression on the top line of the Beethoven finale. The most startling and assertive contribution came from the voluptuously upholstered mezzo, Andrea Baker, who in starkest contrast to everyone else’s sober black elected to wear a thing of bright orange and canary yellow, cut with a neckline so astonishingly décolleté that I feared the worst at the end when she took a bow (this once actually happened to me with Régine Crespin: but that’s another story altogether). But of Ms. Baker’s vocal contribution to events, I can say nothing, since I never once managed to hear her over either the orchestra or her colleagues.
Pappano’s account of the Dallapiccola, decent enough in itself, nevertheless nowhere rivalled Salonen’s white-hot savagery, and his conducting of the Beethoven struck me as far too groomed and prettified (though the Finnish maestro’s Fifth symphony was miserably low-def and subfusc, I should add) with the last two movements of the Ninth by turns simply too lyrically superficial and undercharacterised (and the ten cellos unseemly scramble in the orchestral “recitative” preceding the first entry of the “An die Freude” theme was eyebrow-raising). All in all, an intriguing concert on paper that nowhere lived up to its promise in practice. I may just add that I was still fully expecting all this to be swept aside by the Verdi Requiem Pappano and his forces were giving the following evening, to which I duly turned up at 7.20, only to discover that it had begun at 5, no mention of which ever found its way to me. Ah well. I’m sure it was wonderful. Meanwhile, for the concert I did attend, and which wasn’t
(Photo of Antonio Pappano : Musacchio & Ianniello / Photo of Stuart Skelton: John Wright – both via IMG Artists website)