Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Ode to Napoleon and Il Prigioniero, Opéra National de Paris, 15 April 2008

Palais Garnier

Schoenberg: Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op.41

Dale Duesing (reciter)
Frédéric Laroque, Vanessa Jean (violins)
Laurent Verney (viola)
Martine Bailly (’cello)
Christine Lagniel (piano)

Dallapiccola: Il prigioniero

La Madre – Rosalind Plowright
Il Prigoniero – Evgeny Nikitin
Il Carciere, Il Grande Inquisitore – Chris Merritt
Due Sacerdoti – Johan Weigel and Bartlomiej Mlaluda

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
Alessandro di Stefano (chorus-master)
Lothar Zagrosek (conductor)

Llula Pasqual (director)
Paco Azorin (designs)
Isidre Prunés (costumes)
Albert Faura (lighting)

It was an excellent idea to preface Il prigioniero, Dallapiccola’s one-act opera – strictly, ‘un prologo e un atto’ – with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. The last time I had seen Il prigioniero it had represented almost the only adventurous selection for the English National Opera’s 2000 ‘Italian season’, combined with Berio’s Folk songs – which just about worked and absolved ENO from having to stage a Berio opera – and, bizarrely, Nino Rota’s film score, La strada. Paris made far more sense, offering two fiercely immediate responses to European fascism (assuming that we count National Socialism as such).

It has generally been considered, although I do not think the composer ever explicitly made the connection, that Schoenberg had Hitler in mind as he set Byron’s sardonic ‘ode’ from his American exile in 1942. Many on the English side of the Channel, whilst they would not go so far as to identity Napoleon and Hitler, would still consider the former to have been and certainly to have become a monstrous dictator. Yet such a reaction is far less common in France, where Bonapartism dies hard. This Anglo-Austrian onslaught therefore gained an extra frisson, to which an additional layer of historical meaning was lent by the location: not the Opéra Bastille, but the old house, the Palais Garnier, ‘in the style of Napoleon III’. The production, however, dwelled upon the era of Schoenberg rather than that of Byron. I have heard Schoenberg’s Ode taken to task for hectoring, which seems rather like criticising Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ for rejoicing. The combination of subject matter and Sprechgesang more or less guarantees such a characterisation, should one be so inclined. (Incidentally, it has much in common with Schoenberg’s psalm settings and, indeed, with his Moses.)

Llula Pasqual’s production created an illuminating context for such hectoring – ‘ranting’ has been the word more often employed – by introducing the element of cabaret. As the curtain rose, I could not imagine why reciter Dale Duesing was in drag, but the penny soon dropped, not least since the instrumentalists, male and female, of the onstage piano quintet were dressed in black tie à la Weimar. I wondered how far Duesing’s striptease would progress, until it became clear that not only would he perform his dressing-room ablutions, but he would also don pyjamas in preparation for the concentration camp. There was also the suggestion – if only from me – that Napoleon and Hitler were, as Nietzsche would have understood only too well, essentially ‘actors’ themselves. Intriguingly, Duesing appeared to have something of a German accent to begin with. It worked rather well, although was rather puzzling since he is American; perhaps it was more of a response to Schoenberg’s word-setting, or perhaps it was just ‘staged’. In any case, Duesing’s vocal contribution was impressive, although there were just a couple of instances where he seemed to fall very briefly out of sync with the players. Their musicianship was manifest from the opening bars, surely some of the most immediately memorable music Schoenberg ever wrote. (If it is too ‘busy’ quite to be hummable, one can certainly hear it in one’s head after a single audition.) Conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, they expressed not only the fury of Schoenberg’s admonitions, but also the neo-Brahmsian musical integrity of this astonishing score, leading inexorably and shatteringly to the unforgettable E-flat major reference to Beethoven’s Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo. In this performance, ‘hero dust’ was indeed as ‘vile as vulgar clay’.

Il prigioniero was composed at much the same time, although it was not completed until 1948, after the full horrors of wartime experience were known to all. Equally dodecaphonic, and rejoicing in its homage to each member of the Second Viennese School, the score is also undeniably Italian. The opening motif, redolent of a distorted fanfare, is equally suggestive of twelve-note Puccini, and its recurrences are every bit as memorable as one of his melodies. So was the almost unbearable false hope of the three-note ‘fratello’ motif, as we follow the Prisoner in the hope engendered by his gaoler having called him ‘brother’, only to have it dashed by the startling revelation of his would-be-friend as the Inquisitor himself. I was in two minds about the production identifying the two, if indeed this were the intention. It was certainly the effect and in practice the two roles are often sung by the same tenor. It sealed the hopelessness in hope of the Prisoner’s fate and identified, as does the score, the Inquisitor’s ‘fratello’ with the terrible ‘sogno’ (dream) of the Prisoner’s mother, but it made it more difficult for us to hope, through prayer, of freedom (each of these three concepts being symbolically associated with one of the opera’s three note-rows). Either way, this is the ultimate anti-Fidelio. Where Beethoven could still dream of bourgeois freedom in noble fashion, this is now impossible; hope is itself the worst form of torture.

The production certainly scored in its depiction of the prison in which a variety of torture takes place. Paco Azarin’s designs, with their Piranesi staircases, created a suitably labyrinthine setting. Likewise the treadmill effect as the Prisoner edged towards ‘freedom’. Moreover, whilst it might seem wearisome in the abstract retelling, this was an instance of Guantanamo on stage that worked. The parallels between sixteenth-century Europe, torn apart through ‘religious’ strife and our own time are clear, as are those of the responses. Truly shocking was the choral intermezzo between the Prologue and Scene One, in which the chorus was directed on stage to sing the words, ‘Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,’ as a hanging and other behaviour of ‘our’ troops proceeded. Having witnessed similar scenes very recently in the Komische Oper Berlin’s Iphigénie en Tauride, I noted how immediately relevant they were to two such very different dramas. This was not the shock of épater les bourgeois; this was confronting our world with crimes indistinguishable from those of sixty or more than four hundred years earlier. It is worth adding that the choral singing was superb, both here and later, when its Latin was heard from behind and above, adding a powerful spatial dimension to the drama. The songs of praise when freedom is apparently attained were overwhelmingly chilling.

So too was Evgeny Nikitin as the Inquisitor – and, owing to their identity, as the Gaoler. He exhibited majesty as the former and an horrific ‘compassion’ as the latter. I thought his final deed, administering a lethal injection to the Prisoner, a melodramatic miscalculation, but that was not Nikitin’s fault. Otherwise, he succeeded in projecting the absolute evil so unsparingly depicted in the drama (a rarer accomplishment in terms of artist and work than one might imagine). Hagen came to mind during the final scene. Chris Merritt sang well for the most part as the Prisoner, and certainly gave a powerful stage performance. He appeared to tire somewhat at one point, although in fact this actually worked in terms of the drama. Rosalind Plowright was close to perfect as the Mother. The twin emotion and clarity of her performance precisely mirrored the role and the text. It is a wonderful role, and she was wonderful in it. It would be excessively faint praise to say that the singers were well supported by the orchestra, although they were. For much of the drama lies within the orchestra, not least in the Bergian ricercares, in which that powerful dialectic between expression and precision, both aspects gaining power from the interplay, was searingly brought to the fore. Lothar Zagrosek, who in my experience has always been at his best in twentieth-century music, should be credited for steering a clear line through the score. Lyricism was not overlooked, far from it. Equally crucially, the power of the musical work’s structure and construction was permitted to stand as a sign of resistance. There may not be hope in an administered world, yet, as Adorno signalled, twelve-note music, for all the complexity of its relationship with that world, somehow continues to resist. Now will someone stage Dallapiccola’s Ulisse?

It was, then, certainly worth making a special trip to Paris for an extremely powerful and provocative theatrical experience. Afterwards, having found a restaurant in Montparnasse, I was heartened that the waiter, spying my programme, declared, ‘Le prisonnier – c’est magnifique!’ and proceeded enthusiastically to discuss his experience of the first night with me. I suppose something similar could have happened in London, but suspect that any such hope would be without foundation.