Pfitzner: Palestrina

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Pfitzner
LABELS: EuroArts
WORKS: Palestrina
PERFORMER: Christopher Ventris, Peter Rose, Michael Volle, John Daszak, Roland Bracht, Falk Struckmann, Christiane Karg; Bavarian State Orchestra; Bavarian State Opera Chorus/Simone Young; dir. Christian Stückl (Munich, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: 207 2528

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This is the first DVD of Pfitzner’s great opera, which has a deservedly devoted following in Bavaria and Austria, and has had two runs at Covent Garden.

Pfitzner was a resolutely conservative composer, but this, his masterpiece, premiered in 1917, shows a highly personal and, to me, moving talent. What one wants from a stage production of a complex and rare work is primarily a lucid presentation of the narrative. You hardly get that here.

The story of how Palestrina was ordered to compose a Mass by the Council of Trent to vindicate traditional modes of composition evidently needs setting in the 16th century, but this is set in the present, with Palestrina as an alcoholic, cardinals arriving by train, his son doing the ironing, and so forth. In the outer acts the colours are painfully raucous reds and greens, while the central act is chiefly in black and white.

The musical performance is quite good, but not as good as this opera needs (there are several ‘historical’ recordings around from the early 1950s which are far superior). Palestrina himself, sung by Christopher Ventris, is slightly wooden.

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The huge role of Cardinal Borromeo is taken by Falk Struckmann, a powerful artist not here on top form. The accompanying documentary is a perfect model of unhelpfulness and non-information. Michael Tanner