Reflections on Murder in the Cathedral
We attended San Diego Opera’s presentation of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral (It. Assassinio nella cattedrale) Saturday night, March 30, 2013, at the San Diego Civic Theater. General Director Ian Campbell has long wanted to stage this work ever since he bowed to the wishes of his opera board in 1970’s South Australia, who thought it was too modern. After having attended, I can now see why he was impressed by this work.
First fully staged at La Scala in 1958, this brief (less that two hours including intermission) opera closely follows the T.S. Eliot play in depicting the internal struggle faced by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170 as he contemplates his approaching murder by knights sent by King Henry II of England. And, of course, the opera shows the murder itself, the knights rationalizing their actions and ends with a glorious choral scene in which Becket is declared a saint by the assembled men’s, women’s and children’s choruses.
Of course, as a kind of one-man show, Murder in the Cathedral needs a first rate singing actor to portray Becket, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto easily fulfilled this requirement handling the difficult declamatory vocal line with ease and turning himself into the at first anguished, but later resolute, Becket. He dominated the stage. At the same time, for a one-man show there are a remarkable number of supporting characters from the Tempters/Knights, to the three priests, to the Herald and the two solo female “choruses.” Each of these roles is short, but important, and Ian Campbell, who also directed, made sure they were well cast so that there were no weak spots in the performance. If we add the stunning set depicting Canterbury Cathedral, I cannot imagine a better staging of this opera.
As for the work itself, I think it is underrated, even by our local critic, who referred to as a “second-rate work by a second rate Italian composer.” I will admit that with its declamatory style and almost complete lack of arias, it can be considered a “difficult” work, but because of that I took the time to prepare by reading the play, attending lectures and watching a DVD of performance set in the Cathedral of Bari Italy. I think the preparation paid off, because I familiarized myself with the dark rhythmic orchestral music, the beautiful choral music and the moving scenes with the two solo female choruses, especially the aria for the “First Chorus” in the last act. And, as mentioned before, the chorus that ended the opera just blew me away.
An additional treat was that the often-cut scene after the slaying of Becket, in which the knights speak directly to the audience attempting to justify their actions, was included. I enjoyed this scene, not for the music, but for the dialog, which reminded me of the ability of the human mind to rationalize even the most horrendous acts.
There are two performances left of Murder in the Cathedral-Friday, April 5, and a matinee on Sunday, April 7. Gentle reader, I recommend that you attend. Even if you do not like the music, you will love Furlanetto’s performance, and if you like neither, it is only two hours long.