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Pizzetti: Assassinio nella cattedrale
Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gianandrea Gavanezzi, Gianandrea Gavazzeni
Pizzetti: Assassinio nella cattedrale
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (9) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (10) - Disc #2


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"Fare forward to the end. / All other ways are closed to you
L. E. Cantrell | Vancouver, British Columbia Canada | 04/07/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"SOURCE: The Good Grey British Magazine, "The Gramophone," delicately refers to this recording as "unofficial." Details are conspicuously lacking, and perhaps it might be wise not to inquire too closely. The performance is the world premiere of the opera at La Scala on March 1, 1958.

SOUND: Fair mono at best, and minimally acceptable if approached with good will. Serious audiophiles, stop reading at this point and walk away.

CAST: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury - Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (baritone); First Chorus Leader - Leyla Gencer (soprano); Second Chorus Leader - Gabriella Carturan (mezzo-soprano); Herald - Aldo Bertocci (tenor); First Priest - Unknown (tenor); Second Priest - Mario Ortica (tenor); Third Priest (baritone); First Tempter - Adolfo Cormanni (tenor); Second Tempter - Antonio Cassinelli (baritone); Third Tempter - Nicola Zaccaria (baritone); Fourth Tempter - Lino Puglisi (bass); First Knight, Sir Reginald Fitz Urse - Rinaldo Pelizzoni (tenor); Second Knight, Sir Hugh de Morville - Enrico Campi (baritone); Third Knight, Baron William de Traci - Silvio Majonica (baritone); Fourth Knight, Sir Richard Brito - Marco Stefanoni (bass).

CONDUCTOR: Giandrea Gavazzeni with the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

TEXT: In 1935, T. S. Eliot, who was a great poet, published "Murder in the Cathedral," a verse play based on the death of Saint Thomas Becket in the year 1170. The play is not bad, but it and others that followed progressively demonstrated that Eliot's true genius was not for the stage. In serviceable but hardly memorable verse, the play closely adheres to the contemporary accounts of Gervase of Canterbury a monk who knew Becket and Edward Grim, an eyewitness who was actually wounded while trying to defend the Archbishop from his attackers. The true merit of "Murder in the Cathedral" is not in its verse but in a long prose passage. After the murder of the soon-to-be saint, the four bloodstained knights who had just done the deed step forward to address the audience directly. In perfectly calm, reasoned and ordered words, they seek to justify their barbaric act of savagery. Such is the power of Eliot and such is the strength of the play that they come shockingly close to succeeding.

"Murder in the Cathedral" was translated into Italian as "Assassinio nella cattedrale" by Alberto Castelli. Pizzetti, acting as his own librettist, used a shortened version of Castelli's text. The main cuts involved the prose justificatory speeches of the four knights. As in the play, the two halves of the opera hinge upon a paraphrase of the actual sermon delivered by Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day, 1170.

COMMENTARY: Ildebrando Pizzetti (1881-1968) was an academic by profession. After various teaching positions in Parma and Florence, he became a director of the Instituto Cherubini in Florence in 1917. He shifted from the Instituto in 1924 to become director of the Milan Conservatory and from 1936 at Academia Santa Cecilia, a position he held until he retired in 1960. Among his many pupils was Gianandrea Gavazzeni, the conductor of this performance. Pizzetti wrote a symphony, concertos, sonatas and other works, including several operas, the first being "Fedra" in 1912. "Assassinio nella cattedrale" was his last major work, premiering when he was 77 years old.

Pizzetti was a traditionalist, massively out of step with his more experimental and adventurous contemporaries. This traditionalism is very much in evidence in "Assassinio nella cattedrale." Neither Pizzetti nor his music is unsophisticated, but the straight-forward, dignified, even tuneful settings, especially of the choruses look back to the beginning of the 20th Century, not to its discordant middle years. Pizzetti's music has not had much impact on the English speaking world, but, I gather, it remains alive and well in Italy. Judging by this opera, I, for one, shall look forward to other examples of his work.

This world premiere performance is a good one. La Scala and Gavazzeni, who was the leading conductor there and would eventually retire as its artistic director, seem to have been intent on seeing Pizzetti off in the style befitting a grand old man. The large cast bears evidence of that, for it is clear that the four tempters, who appear only in the first part of the opera, are duplicates of the four knights who appear only in the second part. Karajan led a performance at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1960; he doubled performers of the magnitude of Walter Berry and Paul Schöffler between Tempters and Knights.

The La Scala cast was co-anchored by Rossi-Lemeni and Leyla Gencer. Rossi-Lemeni was a far better performer than much of subsequent critical opinion would suggest. On record, his voice does admittedly tend a bit toward fuzziness, but on stage, as I saw him on half a dozen occasions, he was a strong and vital performer. The Turkish-born Gencer was a great bel canto specialist. Pizzetti's music is not in her natural environment, but she nevertheless provides a fine performance as the First Chorus Leader. The remainder of the cast consisted of La Scala house regulars whose names will be familiar to those who collect Italian opera performances of the 1950s and 60s.

This is a good performance of an old-fashioned but pleasantly pleasing setting of a famous literary work. For myself, I'd assign five stars to it, but it can't be denied that the sound of this "unofficial" recording is not what it might have been, so ... four stars."
Perfect balance between drama and beauty
Jacques COULARDEAU | OLLIERGUES France | 07/20/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The opening is typical of the end of the 1950s. Soft and somber to fit the drama and at the same time some minor chords and intervals giving some unbalance to the music to introduce the struggle that looms high all along this opera. Bells are ringing the change from the introduction to the first choir of women who want to be representative of the people, the faithful of Canterbury. The priests enter with some percussions and start singing their vision of the world full of struggling and fighting. The returning women explode and sound like criers, lamenters, like some kind of tempest, a blowing and raging wind of the mind against this cruel masculine world. It is this constant contrasting of men and women, of male and female voices, of the church versus the faithful, of politicians versus the people, that is worked upon with great subtlety, and the absolutely never ending music, one track merging into the next as if it was a river in which here and there an instrument or a voice stands out in a fearful and frightening way. Thomas Becket then appears as firm and never touched by doubt in this brutal confrontation of mind and body, spirit and power. He does not doubt in his solid and strong voice that does not get into excessive movements. Peaceful and pacified he is like someone who knows what is coming and does not try to escape it because he is right and has to stand firm in front of coming adversities. The voice of Thomas itself is full and well balanced in some low vocal stratum that sounds like the best founding conviction for the Archbishop and for all of us. Let's be convinced of our righteousness. Then the first tempter arrives singing like a clown in a circus or a street artist. Thomas just listens and answers peacefully and pushes the temptation of easy pleasures away. The second tempter is a lot more dramatic and violent with a darker voice coming up from deep under, the world of politics, the real tempter, and the temptation is harder to reject with no and yes plying from one to the other. The women can then come up and express an oppressive feeling in front of the ensuing silence, which reinforces What Thomas has to say before the third tempter arrives speaking in the name of the people, against the king, for a union of Barons and Church, a rebellion against this despotic king. Thomas can easily parry this off: the church stands all by itself for its own right. The fourth tempter has it easy to encourage Thomas in his vanity, his pride, the pride to become a martyr if possible. The women are then back to help Thomas in his rejection of the four tempters. Thomas has found perfect equilibrium and force in this battle, in this purification that ends on a vision of a sword against which Thomas asks his guardian angel to protect him. A very Christian moment that closes this first act. The Intermezzo is Thomas Becket's sermon for Christmas, his last Christmas. The singing expresses trust and confidence in God and the future, while the music behind seems to evoke some immense flowing, that of the river of life or the ocean of Edenlike eternity, the wind of the divine cosmos. And this vision of certitude shifts to that of the martyrdom that is coming, the Passion after the Nativity in one wink of an eye, with this time some dark and somber strings playing deep under and behind a musical surface that becomes rather discordant. The opening solo of the leader of the women's choir has the color of submission to fate, of transcendence in submitting to what has to come. The priests and their choir come and set the stage for the murder with references to saints and liturgy. The Knights arrive on some kind of trumpet light music and the vocal and musical fight can start, a tragic argument that sounds like a perfectly built symphony of voices. The choir of women comes in at that moment to suspend the tension and maybe makes it more human, fills it up with feelings and sentiment. The Archbishop can come back for his final words, his liberation, his freeing from this world of alienation with his priests and monks, a sermon that is evoked in music with a long sustained note on a violin as if the world were holding its breath before the descent of death first brought up by the Requiem in Latin of course and the Dies Irae sung by the priests, the monks, a group of boys and the women is both traditional but also very powerful: it sounds as if an immense crowd was singing the lamentation it pushes up to the sky. And the Archbishop himself can come back and preach his own sainthood the necessity to go to the end of a road you have entered knowing where it was leading. The knights can also come pursuing him on the stage, in the cathedral, killing him and then turning to the audience and trying to convince us they did the right good thing that was unavoidable, hence necessary, that their mission was divine too. It was their mission to execute a man they recognize and declare great. Then the opera can end with a religious choir that sanctifies Thomas Becket. The book can close, the story is finished, the audience can clap, the music has come to its end and it will forever remain divine and will resurrect any time a conductor takes the magic wand of his art in hand.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine & University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne