Bravely going with the adventurous tide of the Lincoln Center Festival '97, Great Britain's august Royal Opera made perhaps the gutsiest choice of all for its sole entry in the festival. With the full resources of the company in tow, they brought to the Met the heavily publicized U.S. professional premiere of Hans Pfitzner's "Palestrina" (1917), a strangely shaped, long-winded, occasionally eloquent, always thought-provoking opera about the 16th-century composer of the same name. It's an opera few have heard of, by a composer few have heard of, about a composer few have heard of.
The reasons for this triple neglect are not hard to fathom. Pfitzner (1869-1949), an almost exact contemporary of Richard Strauss and a bellicose anti-Semite who still could not curry favor with the Third Reich, wrote “Palestrina” as a serious allegory of the role of an artist in a world of petty politics and transient aesthetic fashion. One can be-lieve that Pfitzner had himself in mind as the old composer, defending tradition against the assault of newfangled musical trends. The piece has an almost obtusely odd shape — a sprawling, sometimes dramatically static first act (about as long as the whole of “La Boheme”), where the weary Palestrina is eventually inspired to compose his masterpiece; a turbulent second act depicting the squabbles within the Council of Trent; and a very brief third act where Palestrina’s ultimate triumph with the Pope and the public leaves him unmoved.
There are outbreaks of somewhat heavy-handed whimsy in Act I, as well as the caustic musical humor of the per-sonality conflicts between the holy men in Act II — and a nice little riot concludes the stormy Council meeting. Yet this is mostly a contemplative, dialogue-driven work, written in mostly comfortable post-Romantic colors sprinkled with adventurous harmonic quirks and orchestral signatures that are uniquely Pfitzner’s own. Most seri-ously, Pfitzner lacked the genius to accompany his loftiest points with music to match. You feel him earnestly pushing and tugging at the envelope, yet only in the eloquent Preludes, the Act I Angels scene, and in the melting final pages of Act III does he truly touch the listener.
“Palestrina” is not a great opera, certainly not a box office opera. Yet it is fascinating, raising moral questions and issues that perhaps are better savored leisurely at home.
Conductor Christian Thielemann, a tireless “Palestrina” crusader who recorded the opera’s three Preludes beauti-fully on a new Deutsche Grammphon CD, brought urgency and transparent, chamberlike textures to his task at the Met, overcoming some early choppy moments with an eloquently flowing Act III. Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff played it generally straight — as one ought to with an unfamiliar work — with an appropriately ascetic white room for Palestrina, stark yet smooth telescoping of the stage frame between scene changes, keeping the chaos of Act II well under control.
Tenor Thomas Moser was a stoic Palestrina, never more so than in Act III, where the composer acted like a shell-shocked war veteran, while baritone Alan Held delivered Borromeo’s long challenges to Palestrina with stamina and power. The huge cast requirements of Act II gave the Royal Opera a chance to exploit its superb depth; one could enjoy star cameos like Thomas Allen’s commandingly magisterial Cardinal Morone, Robert Tear’s sardonic Bishop of Budoja, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s near-comic piping as the aged Patriarch of Assyria.
As a centerpiece for a major festival — surrounded by spinoff programs from the New York Philharmonic and other smaller outfits — these high-profile, big-league performances might help put Pfitzner back on the 20th-century map. But it is highly doubtful that the Royal Opera will make nearly as profound an impact this time as it did when it visited Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, an appearance that kick-started L.A. into finally becoming a major opera center.