Something of an anomaly in the history of twentieth-century music, Ildebrando Pizzetti's name has never been as well known as that of Ottorino Respighi, his near contemporary.
Together with Malipiero and Casella, these composers were known collectively as the 'Generation of the 1880s' ('la generazione dell'Ottanta') who returned to the non-operatic musical traditions of Italy after decades dominated by the likes of Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Yet Pizzetti, the leading light of the group, made his name with two operas (Fedra and Dčbora e Jaéle), and aside from his Messa di requiem (1922) his most famous work is his 1958 opera, Assassinio nella cattedrale (Murder in the Cathedral).
Poorly represented in the recording catalogue, the piece will surely gain in recognition after the release of this indispensable new DVD, which makes an excellent case for its reassessment. Although one could pick a few holes in it, they become irrelevant in light of the overall success of the enterprise.
Director Daniele D'Onofrio staged the work in a church, the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, on 22 December 2006, bringing the plot - based on T S Eliot's play about Henry II's murder of Thomas Becket - back to a religious setting. The orchestra is positioned in front of the audience and the choruses of Women of Canterbury and Priests stand on either side of the altar. Becket arrives from the back of the church and moves around at will, as do the Tempters, Knights and other solo characters. This works well, because the relatively static nature of the piece - with the large amount of choral numbers giving the choir the feeling of a Greek Chorus rather than an operatic one - does not seem out of place in a church, where stillness is usual, everyone has his or her own place, and the natural ambience of the building enhances the performance.
The acoustic, too, is very good, all things considered, though there are inevitably occasional moments of imbalanced sound between singers and orchestra and the building's natural echo puts several of the soloists slightly off tune for the odd split second. The DVD experience is boosted by little scenes showing Thomas in private or the arrival of the tempters and executioners at the cathedral, discreetly superimposed onto the film of the live performance; overall, the disc is excellently presented, though there are no special features.
The role of Thomas Becket is perfect for Ruggero Raimondi at this stage of his career. The largely declamatory and dramatic vocal style of the opera means that he can rely on his still-large voice to lead the opera with suitable gravitas; he also remains a compelling actor and breathes life into every page of the score and libretto. Perhaps the lyrical Intermezzo is a little less arresting, but on the whole one cannot help but be swept along by the sheer force of his personality.
No other familiar names amongst the rest of the cast, but there are fine performances from the two Women of Canterbury (Paoletta Marrocu, Sonia Caramella), the Tempters and Knights (Salvatore Cordella, Massimiliano Valleggi, Antonio De Gobbi, István Kovács), the Priests (Saverio Fiore, Filippo Bettoschi, Elia Fabbian) and the Herald (Luca Caslin). Passion and commitment rather than refinement and subtlety tends to be the order of the day, but that's very much in line with Pizzetti's musico-dramatic procedure and Marrocu's First Woman of Canterbury (a role made famous by Leyla Gencer) is outstanding.
Splendid singing and playing comes from the Coro ATER, the Coro bianche del Conservatorio Piccinni di Bari, and the Orchestra Sinfonica della Provincia di Bari under the baton of the fiery and energetic conductor Piergiorgio Morandi.
Nobody with an interest in twentieth-century opera should pass up the opportunity to hear this piece, and even fans of late-nineteenth-century verismo will find much to enjoy.
Reviews of other recent new releases on Decca include: