Pfitzner's opera Palestrina tells the – completely untrue – story of how the sixteenth-century composer Palestrina, by writing his Missa Papae Marcelli, rescued polyphony for the church. So far so uninteresting. But it was composed in the turmoil of the First World War, and it is the contemporary political resonances that the composer weaves into the plot that make the work worth investigating. There are many passages that do have a certain late-Romantic charm or intensity, even in the much vilified middle act. But the Schumann/Wagner pastiche, however well it is performed, is not enough on its own. Any director is also going to have to tease some of those historical and political elements out of the libretto if the opera is going to be a success.
This new production, first unveiled during the 2008/09 season here in Munich, squeezes as much expression as possible out of the weak score. This was the first time I had heard the opera in the theatre and Pfitzner turns out to have been a much more subtle and inventive orchestrator than recordings of the work suggest. The delicate chamber textures, the deliberate restraint so that new colours and textures could be heard throughout, and the increase in intensity of each climax were all beautifully shaped by young Australian conductor Simone Young. She also had a professionalism that should be praised, giving the score as much commitment as if it were a genuine masterpiece.
Christopher Ventris in the title role did not have much chance to show off his acting range or his voice. His psychological journey is from suicidal, in the first act, to walking corpse, in the last. We did, however, at least get a brief taste of his heroic tenor when he sang a touching hymn of love to his dead wife in the first act. The emotional weight of the opera was carried by Falk Struckmann as Cardinal Borromeo. He was convincing in the only real character arc of the opera – from conflict between friendship and duty, to contrition at choosing the latter – with one of those rare bass voices that is able to penetrate through a full late-Romantic orchestra.
I can only mention a few of the very many secondary roles. Certainly the most mightily impressive was Michael Volle who drew the eye as well as the ear in his central position as Giovanni Morone presiding over the Council of Trent. The two trouser roles, Christiane Karg as Palestrina's son Ighino and Claudia Mahnke as his student Silla, added some welcome boyish (girlish!) humour to the proceedings.
The direction by Christopher Stückl is hit and miss. When Stückl reconstructs the libretto in a deliberate bid to say something to the contemporary audience, it ends in banal commonplaces and confusion. In the seventy minutes of the second act, which takes place wholly at the Council of Trent, only one tiny exchange has anything to do with moving the plot forward. Pfitzner is not thinking about drama here, but his political target: democracy. Like many of his countrymen in 1917, he felt that democracy wasn't right for Germany. Democracy has never been a perfect form of government and many of his ironic comments still stick. Particularly amusing for the British in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal is the Budoian contingent who turn up with rucksacks, licking ice-creams: 'one sees something of the world,' they chirp, 'and gets one's travel free!' We witness the forcing through of policy without making sure it's right, back-room politicking, and there are even naïve ideologues who want to do the right thing, but are manipulated by more astute operators. Of course, the question of whether we should be democratic is a non-issue today, and it is staged instead as both an anti-totalitarian and an anti-Catholic polemic. But the Catholic Church and tyrannical regimes are just too easy to criticize from the outside and the act just becomes one long confused and pointless mess.
When deconstructing aspects of Pfitzner's proto-fascism, however, the direction gets to the heart of what was wrong with his worldview. The composer's conservative ideals saw him pining for a harmonious past that never really existed. In his libretto, the spirits of great past masters come to a dejected Palestrina and tell him he will write a truly great work and join their exulted ranks: this is presented as the ultimate accolade. Stückl subverts Pfitzner's intent by having the dead composers rise up from the ground as a bunch of preening, dandified zombies. They don't laugh in an avuncular manner when he admits he doesn't think he's good enough to join them, but cackle fiendishly. When his wife also comes back from the dead she is no longer the beautiful woman who used to inspire his music, but a rotting corpse with a distended head and an eerie blank expression.
Thomas Mann originally praised what he called Palestrina's 'sympathy with death'. He later came to realize that there is a fine line between respectful nostalgia and morbid necrophilia. This production works when it exposes Pfitzner's volkisch conservatism for what it is: scrabbling around in the filth of previous generations looking for answers to problems that can only be solved in the present.
By Marc Brooks
Photos credits: Wilfried Hoesl