A concert marking the 50th-anniversary of Amnesty International needed to feature at least one work of direct relevance, and there could be nothing more appropriate than Il prigioniero – the one-act opera on which Luigi Dallapiccola worked between 1944 and 1948 and whose emotional impact has always resisted attempts to pin it down as regards any narrow ideological focus. A piece, moreover, that Esa-Pekka Salonen has championed for over a quarter-century and which was presented here in a necessarily limited though, for the most part, effective semi-staging from David Edwards. For all its brevity (not quite 48 minutes on this occasion), this is an opera whose dramatic pacing and expressive range could scarcely be greater: having the singers jockeying for space at the front of the platform might easily have worked against these, yet the restricted uniformity of Edward’s directing – allied to the restraint of David Holmes’s lighting – emphasised the claustrophobic feel of the whole.
With its setting in the final years of the Spanish Inquisition and its focal-point on the word ‘fratello’ of fateful irony, Il prigioniero evinces a (regrettably) timeless relevance – rendered by the composer in what remains one his most impressive fusions of serial method (derived methodically from that of Schoenberg, for all that it might sound more akin to the music of Berg) with an acute lyricism in terms of vocal writing that can only be described as Italianate.
Formally the opera unfolds as a sequence of interrelated sections such as bring out various aspects of the main character’s predicament without obscuring the goal to which the work is directed. As a result, the human drama is held in accord with the humanist message of the whole. A message, moreover, which Dallapiccola reaffirmed on numerous occasions in his post-war output, though without approaching the unremitting expressive force that arose from the context of an Italy rapidly disintegrating under Nazi coercion.
The cast was a fine one, dominated by Lauri Vasar’s eloquent assumption of The Prisoner who has to carry the latter two-thirds of the work almost singlehandedly. Paoletta Marrocou perforce dominated the opening stage as The Mother, in which her tactile yet rarely mannered phrasing conveyed a real sense of despair and supplication, while Peter Hoare was eminently plausible as the seemingly empathetic Gaoler who turns out to be the Grand Inquisitor undertaking the cruellest of psychological deception. Brian Galliford and Francisco Javier Borda made brief but effective contributions as the two Priests, while the members of Philharmonia Voices rose impressively to the challenge of the climactic choral passage in which Dallapiccola arguably surpasses Puccini in his rendering of a sacred set-piece within an avowedly secular context. After which, Salonen might have invested the final minutes with even greater intensity, yet there was little doubting his innate empathy with the work as a whole.
Whether Salonen evinces a comparable conviction in Beethoven is another matter. To be sure this was a well-conceived and, for the most part, finely executed account of the Fifth Symphony – setting out the expressive diversity within an unequivocal formal unity of the first movement, and only losing focus in the admittedly oblique variation sequence of the Andante that follows. The scherzo had buoyancy as well as energy, with some superbly coordinated lower strings in the trio and a pulsating sense of anticipation going into the finale which, here without its exposition repeat, fulfilled its role as the harbinger of triumph over adversity with no mean panache. Again, fine playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra (can there be anyone in its ranks who played this work under Klemperer?), and if the performance seemed more effective than transcendent, this was hardly unexpected in an age which fights shy of such a ‘message’ almost as a definition of its intent.