Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano at Royal Festival Hall – 1: Beethoven’s Fidelio & Choral Symphony and Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero [The Prisoner]

Fidelio – Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! [from Act II]
Il prigioniero – an opera in a Prologue and one Act to a libretto by the composer [concert performance sung in Italian]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral) – movements III & IV

Fidelio – Stuart Skelton

Il prigioniero:
The Mother – Angeles Blancas Gulin
The Prisoner – Louis Otey
Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor – Stuart Skelton
First Priest – Carlo Putelli
Second Priest – Antonio Pirozzi

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano), Andrea Baker (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor) & Louis Otey (baritone) [Beethoven 9]

Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Sir Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 May, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Antonio Pappano. Photograph: Musacchio & Ianniello licensed to EMI ClassicsSir Antonio Pappano was wearing his Italian hat, that of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, for the first of its two Southbank Centre concerts as part of Shell Classic International. This was a nihilism sandwich, Luigi Dallapiccola’s bleak 1948 opera The Prisoner placed between two substantial chunks of redemptive Beethoven in a programme played without interval and with Pappano rightly leaving no room for applause between the three items.

Beethoven was companion of honour the last time Il prigioniero was played in London (Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra), the triumph of the Fifth Symphony hardly enhancing the unremitting hopelessness of the Dallapiccola, and last year in Calixto Bieito’s ENO staging of Fidelio, a snippet of one of Beethoven’s late String Quartets made a surprise appearance as a post-despair, healing sound-bite.

Stuart Skelton. Photograph: John WrightThe Florestan in that production was Stuart Skelton, and he primed the trap of Il prigoniero with Florestan’s stirringly sung scena at the start of Act Two. His opening long crescendo on the word “Gott” was a neat précis of his voice’s qualities – its colour, range and thrilling heroism, all enhanced by his generous expressiveness. In just a few minutes he summed up the spirit of the opera, capped by a superbly hallucinogenic vision of Leonore.

The boot was on the other foot, though, in Il prigioniero, Dallapiccola’s opera set in 16th-century Spain at the time of King Philip II and the Inquisition. The Prisoner of the title is led to believe he has been set free, but his liberty is cruelly curtailed when the Gaoler reveals himself as the Grand Inquisitor, who leads his victim to the stake – this offering of hope is the most refined instrument of torture.

Dallapiccola’s serialist score is the ideal vehicle for the story’s extreme anguish, but leaves plenty of leeway, as with Berg, for passages of searing lyricism. The overwhelming impression, though, is of lurid expressionism – shades of Bartók (I can’t imagine Prigioniero hasn’t made an apt double-bill with Bluebeard’s Castle), Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and his Moses und Aron flicker in this stream-of-consciousness parade of terror and claustrophobia, with the music circling round the words “spera” (hope) and “fratello” (brother), the latter word sung by the Gaoler/Inquisitor with suave, false tenderness.

The singers were excellent. As the Mother, who has the Prologue to herself, Angeles Blancas Gulin was incisive and dramatic. Her lower range has an impressive warmth and fullness, and she made the dips into sprechgesang sound natural. Louis Otey (also singing from memory) played the Prisoner’s false escape with a sustained pathos, projected by a voice of considerable power and suppleness; his climactic “Alleluia”, just before the Gaoler is revealed as the Grand Inquisitor, provided all the tragedy this concert performance required. Skelton, as the Gaoler, lit the fuse of hope with a tautly graded, sinuous and crooning charm, and his transformation into the Inquisitor had the sort of ingratiating gentleness you get from Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. The Chorus produced great blocks of sound, and Pappano, who has an obvious affinity with this work, drew magnificent playing in this iridescent, intense and virtuoso score.

With such a seamlessly negative revelation, the divine spark of hope and universal brotherhood of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony was certainly a relief, although as a release it initially felt contrived. But resistance was futile. Pappano was superb in bringing the slow movement’s ecstatic serenity into view. He has a knack of knowing how far to highlight individual sections of the orchestra, and the strings (antiphonal violins with cellos and violas in the centre) produced a notably luminous sheen. For its size (about 80-strong), the Chorus produced a hugely vital sound. Otey, as well he might, sounded a bit sung out in “O Freunde”; Skelton’s solo gave a strongly Mahlerian feel to the march; and Pappano had the closing pages motoring to a thrilling conclusion. Even if you had doubts about the bleeding chunks of Beethoven, in context they made the impact of the whole very powerful.

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