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Savant Blu-ray Review

Pfitzner: Palestrina
Euroarts and Unitel Classica
1:78 widescreen
208 min.
Street Date February 26, 2013

Directed by Christian Stückl

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Pfitzner: Palestrina is Euroarts' release of Palestrina, an opera by Hans Pfitzner about the trials and tribulations of a depressed composer, that premiered in 1917. The language of the work is early 20th century couched in Romanticism. The usual review states that this is a romantic opera and that Pfitzner was against modern music. Careful listening will reveal many modern techniques amidst a backwash of Romantic harmony. At three and a half hours, this is also a heavy, often difficult piece of composition. Pfitzner is an excellent composer and wrote the libretto, obviously under the influence of Wagner, who also penned his libretti. This performance was captured at Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper in 2009. It is sung in German, and conducted by the Australian Simone Young.

Pfitzner based his work on the 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Palestrina (tenor Christopher Ventris), turning a conflict in his career into the material of a basic backstage musical. The opera opens in Palestrina's home. Cardinal Borromeo, (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) disrupts a scene between Palestrina's student Silla (Claudia Mahnke) and Palestrina's young son Ighino (Christiane Karg). The youngsters exit when the Church enters the scene. The Cardinal tells Palestrina that the Pope wants the music of the church to return to the simplicity of Gregorian chant (a single line of melody). Only Palestrina, as our Superman, can write a new mass in a polyphonic style (many lines being played or sung together) that can thwart the church from making this dreaded decision. Ah, but there's a problem. Since the death of Palestrina's wife, his powers of composition have left him. Instead of sympathizing, the Cardinal sees this as heresy and chooses to threaten Palestrina. Luckily, all doesn't take much for our composing genius to get the creative juices flowing again -- just a series of visitations from the ghosts of composers past, a choir of angels, and his dead wife. In a flash, the masterpiece Missa Papae Marcelli is completed, a miracle bar none. Palestrina falls asleep, exhausted.

The Cardinal contacts the Council of Trent (those appointed to throw out polyphonic writing and institute Gregorian chant, among other things) and rats on Palestrina, letting the Council know that the composer is a heretic and has refused to write a mass to save polyphony. The Papal Legate Bernardo Novagerio (John Daszak) decides it is to be death for poor imprisoned Palestrina. Much ruckus ensues between members during the Council meeting.

Luckily, Ighino has taken the new masterpiece to the Vatican, a gesture that has allowed his father to be spared from the gallows. Pope Pius IV (Peter Rose) hears the Missa Papae Marcelli and realizes that Palestrina has saved the day. Palestrina is no longer going to die, and is instead appointed the Sistine Chapel's new music director. The Cardinal, with his tail between his legs, asks Palestrina for forgiveness. Our tale wraps up very nicely, all threads tied.

Unitel Classica tells us that there are 38 soloists in this show, and all the performances are excellent. Director Christian Stückl does admirably with the daunting task of flying angels, stretch limos full of church members, large puppets playing the dead wife and the pope, as well as living characters. Simone Young conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, bringing delicacy and nuance to this difficult and dense score. That's the good news. The staging by Stefan Hageneier is where this production goes awry. Much of the first act is set in a world drained of color, as if perceived by a depressed person. When the palette is restored, they are not natural at all: day-glow chartreuse, hot mauve, bright fuchsia, and electric blue dominate the stage. One gets the sense that the staging is intentionally at cross-purposes with the libretto. For example, when a giant portrait of Christ is revealed in act three, it resembles a crudely drawn Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe silk screen, in outrageous hues. This pop-art approach makes the whole show look like a poorly designed comic book. The makeup design and costumes follow the same non-style.

We have nothing against modern interpretations of classic operas, but too often what we see when period stories are updated and stylized is a lack of any connection to the original material. We're told that Palestrina is not often revived; and we get the aching feeling that productions like this one are undertaken primarily for reasons of budget -- "anything will do" design and art direction can be relatively cheap to stage.

The disc's one extra addresses this exact issue. The "Making of Palestrina" special feature outlines some of the reasons for the staging, the libretto, the singer's character interpretations. It also offers some background on Pfitzner.

Euroarts and Unitel Classica's Blu-ray of Pfitzner: Palestrina takes little advantage the higher resolution of HD. With purposefully garish lighting, outrageous colors, and a shallow stage, the detail that HD brings is lost with this disc. The audio, however, is more than adequate. The two-channel stereo sounds much richer than it has any right to -- the music beautifully recorded and mixed.

The liner notes booklet contains pieces by Florian Heurcih and Anthony Short. Palestrina is an interesting opera that aches for staging that is of the period, with serious treatment of the subject matter. This production leaves the viewer wanting more than it delivers.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pfitzner: Palestrina Blu-ray rates:
Opera: Good -
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English, German, French
Supplements: The Making of Palestrina
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2013

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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