Operas based on historical events are easily encountered. An opera about an event in music history is far rarer. Yet that is the case with one of the few compositions for which the composer Hans Pfitzner, who liked to describe himself as an anti-modernist, is remembered. The opera, composed between 1909 and 1915 (a particularly exciting time for the modernists), is entitled Palestrina. Pfitzner himself called the work a “Musical Legend in 3 acts,” the legend being the story of how Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina “rescued” counterpoint from being banned from the rituals of the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent.
This past Wednesday, EuroArts released a single-disc Blu-ray video of this opera, although the two-DVD version has been available since May of 2010. The source is a production by the Bayerische Staatsoper, recorded in performance at the Nationaltheater in Munich in July of 2009. This is a work of epic proportions; and it is given a thoroughly epic (and highly modernist) staging by Christian Stückl, Intendant of the Munich Volkstheater and director of the Oberammergau Passion Plays. The role of Palestrina is sung by Christopher Ventris, supported by a cast of not-quite-thousands with all musical resources under the baton of Simone Young.
Palestrina may be the “hero” of this opera; but the Council of Trent is “where the action is.” This was the Ecumenical Council that basically codified the Counter-Reformation with seventeen dogmatic decrees concerned with the Catholic faith. In the context of Pfitzner’s musical beliefs, it was a major act of “anti-modernism;” and music was a major target of debate. The most reactionary members wanted services to consist of nothing other than Gregorian chant, believing that any more “modern” music would distract the faithful from the religious lessons of the service. The entire second act of Palestrina is set at the final meeting of the Council of Trent. This is preceded by the first act in Palestrina’s house in Rome, where Cardinal Carlo Borromeo tries to persuade him to compose a mass setting that will persuade the Council of the sacred values of counterpoint. (Palestrina has had “writers block” since the death of his wife, which is now several years in the past. He has been living peacefully, albeit sadly, taking care of the day-to-day duties of a choirmaster.) The third act then depicts the “triumph” of the music that affirmed Borromeo’s position, the mass setting now known as the Missa Papae Marcelli.
Stückl’s staging is, to say the least, provocative. Except for Palestrina himself, all the characters wear excessive makeup, making the whole affair appear like an oversized clown show. This is particularly effective in the second act, which comes preciously close to reducing the entire Council of Trent to an extremely long Marx Brothers routine, concluding with a full-stage riot that would not have been out of place in the second act of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
For two of the characters, however, one does not see makeup because they wear oversized puppet heads. One of these is the apparition of Lukrezia, Palestrina’s wife. Her oversized portrait (consisting almost entirely of her face) stares down at the action of the first act; and Stückl cleverly arranges for this portrait to come to life. It is a highly effective turn, particularly since it has been preceded by Palestrina being visited by the spirits of nine contrapuntal masters from the past (beginning with Josquin des Prez), followed by a massive choir of angels, led by three (one of whom flies) who presumably inspire Palestrina to compose his mass setting. (This may have reflected on the legend that the Holy Spirit sang all of the early chants to Gregory I, and he merely transcribed them.) The other oversized head is that of a grotesque Pope Pius IV, who gives his blessing (and a sizable pension) to Palestrina in the third act as thanks for the composition of that music. In that third act, by the way, the face of Lukrezia is replaced by that of Christ, rendered in psychedelic fuchsia and bright green, looking for all the world like a poster for a Sixties concert at the Fillmore.
Stückl’s imaginative staging provides the life-blood for this opera. Pfitzner’s music is competent but not particularly engaging. Pfitzner himself would probably have objected to any parallel between the Council of Trent and the Meistersinger riot, since he prided himself on his own anti-Wagnerian aesthetic. On the other hand one senses some influence from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, not only in the music but also in the rhetoric of the libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. (Pfitzner wrote his own libretto for Palestrina.)
Given what we know about Pfitzner, his attitude towards this opera was probably far more solemn than Stückl’s conception. However, it is hard to imagine many audiences inclined to sit through over 200 minutes of such solemnity, particularly when rendered through Pfitzner’s reactionary rhetoric. Ironically, Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere performance, felt that the opera had “all the elements of immortality.” Stückl seems to have recognized those elements but had the good sense to endow them with relevance for contemporary mentality. The result makes for a highly simulating, and frequently amusing, video document.