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Pizzetti Murder in the Cathedral
adapted from Alberto Castelli's Italian translation of the play by T.S.Eliot

Ruggero Raimondi, Paoletta Marrocu, Sonia Zaramella, Luca Casalin and chorus

Orchestra Sinfonica della Provincia di Bari/Pier Giorgio Morandi

First DVD recording, 22 December 2006 at Basilica di San Nicola in Bari

Decca DVD 074 3253 84 mins

TS Eliot's verse play, 'Murder in the Cathedral' has a special significance for me, as I took part in it at boarding school (First Tempter) and found that Eliot's text - as sub-titled here in English from the Italian - was imprinted deeply in my memory, ready to surface almost in its entirety... And what a fine libretto it makes.

A version by Stephen Barlow, staged at Canterbury itself in 2006, gets short shrift from The Spectator: "- - a work which, if it has survival value, will depend on its text rather more than its music - - a botched job from Philip Wells - - so inept with such a succulent subject - - musical idiom of the most makeshift kind - - international modernist of the old school". The reviewer suggests that the librettist and composer might have pondered T.S. Eliot tackling the same theme and Pizzetti's opera out of it (recorded under Karajan with Hotter as Becket; clearly a collectors' piece, available for £83 upwards...).

This operatic version of 'Murder in the Cathedral', the largest work of Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), seems likewise not to have been a great success in earlier times q.v. - - shifting of taste tend to cast these pieces in wholly new lights, occasionally making what had seemed worthless or uninteresting now evocative and engaging (New York Times).

Maybe it could feel overlong sit in uncomfortable church seats, with little action and words often indecipherable. But it is ideal for video and this is a most tasteful representation, more of oratorio than opera really, with camera work that takes in the orchestra in the nave and places due emphasis on the female chorus of Women of Canterbury.

Ruggero Raimondi is magnificent as the doomed archbishop who embraces his fate after dismissing the several temptations which are partly internalised but then brought to visible life (with the four Tempters doubling King Henry II's Knights who finally kill him on the altar steps. (I think some shots of Canterbury are discreetly introduced - or is it another Romanesque Cathedral?)

The music begins low key, but rises to great tension for the crucial scene of this sacred drama. The notes liken Pizzetti's music to a mix of Renaissance models, Debussy, and such contemporary European composers as Honegger and Hindemith; I feel it is itself more than that might suggest. We don't know a lot of his music (a Pizzetti violin sonata surfaces occasionally) and this DVD suggests considerable viability for the opera which with its large cast would surely suit one of the music colleges (q.v. e.g. Trinity College of Music's Poppea at St Bartholomew the Great).

Strongly recommended, and perhaps it will encourage Universal to reissue the DGG CDs?

Peter Grahame Woolf

P.S. A second viewing enhanced my admiration for Pizzeti's opera Murder in the Cathedral and this DVD, but with one important reservation.

Assassinio nella cathedrale has had a checquered performance history. In 1987 it 'provided reasonable pleasure at its revival by the Bel Canto Opera, presented in an English re-translation that drew heavily from the poet's original text.' (New York Times).

It is a slow moving opera, so I took the opportunity of seeing it again with Eliot's original text by me to compare with the English subtitles, an exercise which proved interesting, not least for reminding myself of detail forgotten over the years.

I had been puzzled that a key sentence imprinted on my memory, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason", did not appear in quite the way I recalled it. This happens throughout the DVD, with small alterations for no apparent or good reason, often just reversals and re-orderings of words and phrases. Research confirmed our suspicion that the English text appearing on screen had been translated from the Italian libretto, not adapted from the original play...

Pizzetti's opera had been considered for Covent Garden before being mounted at Sadler's Wells in 1962 with Don Garrard as Thomas. Musical Times judged it "an opera to be prized as Palestrina and The Harmony of the World are prized; grave, low-toned, thoughtful: always interesting: musically satisfying but never fiery" adding that "The 'back translation' by Geoffrey Dunn often seems wordy because the Italian version can take up to twice as many syllables as the English, so there are twice as many notes to be provided with words, e.g. 'Think, Thomas, think of glory after death' becomes 'Think of it Thomas, think of the glory and the splendour after death' and 'Unbar the door' is now 'Let the doors be thrown open'."

No criticism of the (unnamed) Italian librettist; it presents the essence of the poetic play admirably, but an opportunity was lost by Decca in adopting Geoffrey Dunn's version for the English subtitles. Perhaps that might be remedied if the DVD achieves a re-pressing? [PGW]

See also the review in Musical Criticism, and my thanks to Dominic McHugh for pointing me to the Musical Times review quoted above.