Dark night of the soul

Review: OPERA Palestrina Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture
It was in a noisy early evening pub off Oxford Street in the early 1980s that the late Hans Keller declared to some of us: "I don't say it is necessarily the greatest opera of the 20th century, but no modern opera moves me more deeply." He was talking of Hans Pfitzner's "Musical legend in three acts" Palestrina: that vast allegorical hymn to the constancy of the creative spirit in a world of mutability and destruction, which had been a cult work in Germany ever since Thomas Mann had hailed its Munich premiere under Bruno Walter in 1917 as the greatest operatic event since Parsifal - but which, until Tuesday, had never received a fully professional staging in this country. A consummation at last for all those who have cherished over the decades the luminous old Bavarian Radio recording under Rafael Kubelik, with Nicolai Gedda in the title role? Alas, the new Covent Garden production proves less deeply moving than deeply frustrating.

Not that the demands and difficulties of mounting the piece are to be denied. The hour-and-three-quarter first act is legendary in the slowness of its unfolding - from the scene-setting prattle of Palestrina's modish young pupil Silla, through the cumulative admonitions of his patron Cardinal Borromeo, to the numinous climax when Palestrina is roused from his creative Dark Night of the Soul by a vision of the old masters and composes the Missa Papae Marcelli at the dictation of angels. The shorter, but tumultuous second act, in which the rancorous Council of Trent contrives to save the great tradition of polyphonic church music almost by default, requires no less than 17 character roles, countless yards of ecclesiastical raiment and the most elaborate crowd management. After which the comparatively brief last act, in which Palestrina is visited and blessed by the Pope, then left in solitude to contemplate the realisation that he has added the final masterpiece to the old tradition, has to return the piece to a mood of elegiac inwardness.

Yet perhaps most challenging of all is the sheer strangeness of the music, passing nuances of Wagner, Mahler, Puccini and Richard Strauss notwithstanding: an idiom that hovers in a limbo between the ancient modes and modern chromaticism, throwing up all sorts of odd, empirical harmonic progressions and textures. After a somewhat halting start on Tuesday, Christian Thielemann paced the score well enough, drawing some sensitised playing from the Covent Garden Orchestra in the more archaic passages, suffused by the blanched sonorities of no less than five flutes. His Palestrina is the dependable but not overly characterful American tenor Thomas Moser, while the American baritone Alan Held makes an intelligent Borromeo, without commanding quite the ideal power or presence for the role. There are some wicked ecclesiastical cameos in the second act from Kim Begley, Robert Tear and the venerable Gedda himself, even if Thomas Allen as the Papal Leggate Morone sounded under par on Tuesday; and a touching assumption of Palestrina's son Ighino from Ruth Ziesak.

But the production, to be shared with Rome Opera and Deutsche Oper am Rhein, is little better than provincial. Austerity sets from Tobias Hoheisel, conventional costumes from Bettina J Walter - apart from shirt and trousers for Palestrina himself, presumably to suggest he is also Hans Pfitzner - and a desperately tired stage vocabulary of clutchings and totterings from the producer Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The prosaic handling of the great transcendental moments - the visits of the old masters and the Pope; the composing of the Mass - is most disappointing of all. See it by all means; or catch it in Radio 3's relay on 19 February, and read Owen Toller's thoughtful new monologue Pfitzner's "Palestrina" just published by Toccata Press at pounds 30. But most urgently of all, lay hands on that inspirational old recording.

Further perfs 1 Feb (4pm), 6, 10, 15, 19 Feb (6pm). Booking: 0171-304 4000