Il Prigioniero: Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra and Chorus of St Cecilia, Royal Festival Hall

Pappano's presentation of Dallapiccola's masterpiece is inspired, says Helen Wallace

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Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner) received no fewer than 180 performances in the decade following its premiere in 1948. It fell on hungry ears: passionately anti-fascist, serialist though profoundly lyric, it breathes the air of new age while channelling the grand traditions of Italian opera. Set in the time of Don Carlos, with a chorale as potent as anything in Tosca and a mother whose tragedy wrenches the heart, all the ingredients are in place. In short, it’s a one-act masterpiece. And it has never once been staged at the Royal Opera House.

Pappano put this right with a daring programme with his Accademia di St Cecilia forces, a meditation on inhumanity and liberty which ran seamlessly from Florestan’s prison aria in Fidelio’s Act 2, through Il Prigioniero straight into the Adagio cantabile of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and on to its triumphant finale. The links were very clever indeed, with Florestan’s aria providing a vivid scene-setter of the terrors of incarceration, and the bleak ending of Il Prigioniero melting miraculously (and harmonically aptly) into the consoling embrace of Beethoven’s tender melody, whose radiance seemed to warm the pitiless acoustic of the festival hall. 

It was a risky programme, though, and required an artist of the calibre of Stuart Skelton. His opening cry ‘Gott! Welch dunkel hier!’ seemed to grow and transform into myriad colours before our very ears, until the hall was flooded with burnished tone. As Florestan, as Grimes, as Lohengrin he strikes that ideal balance of power and vulnerability. Pappano’s inspiration was to turn prisoner into gaoler in Il Prigioniero, where Skelton played the honey-voiced Grand Inquisitor, torturing his victim (a sympathetic, if uneven Louis Otey) with hope, his high chant of ‘Fratello’ icily sweet.

The energy of Florestan’s hope of rescue is picked up in the harsh dynamism of Il Prigionero’s prologue, which heralds a mesmerising soliloquy from the prisoner’s mother, there to make her last farewell. Soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin has a compelling dark core to her sound, and shaped her lament beautifully against an orchestration of spare, but phantasmagoric detail.

Hans Keller wrote of the opera, ‘The greatest part of the work is immensely expressive and impressive as long as you don’t look at the stage.’ Indeed, in its intense claustrophobia, lack of action but insidious psychological drama, it translates well to concert performance (as does Bluebeard’s Castle – surely they would make an ideal pairing?). Harp and xylophone conjured the dank, dripping cell, glowing latin choruses with resplendent organ conveyed the seductive power of the church, winding solo strings weave the illusion of the moonlit garden while blazing chromatic peals of trumpets signal the bells of Saragossa. It’s a long sing for the prisoner himself, and Otey sustained suspense, but wavered in focus.

Once betrayed, his whispered question ‘Libertà?’ is eventually answered in Beethoven’s Finale, which was here exuberantly noisy. While the orchestra found a Mahlerian shimmer and depth to the Adagio, the playing was occasionally loud and ragged in this eccentric movement, with some shouty passages from the male chorus. Soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen and Skelton provided clarity and finesse to their parts, with mezzo Andrea Baker a sonorous foil. Explosive applause marked the end of a gripping journey.

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