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Photo Journal and Profile: Pfitzner's Palestrina at Bavarian State Opera

By Jens F. Laurson
23 Jan 2009

Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
photo by Wilfried Hösl

Writer Jens F. Laurson reports from Munich, where a new staging of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina opened Jan. 19 at the National Theater. The rarely-performed 1917 three-act opera stars Christopher Ventris in the title role.


The composer Hans Pfitzner, born 140 years ago, remains a controversial figure even 60 years after his death. Not his music - an uncontroversially beautiful, high-romantic blend of Schumann and Wagner occasionally reminiscent of Humperdinck, Schoeck, Schreker, and Schmidt - but the political persona.

Somewhere between stubborn, naïve and ignorant, he uttered unambiguously racist phrases, was apologetic of Hitler and blamed everyone but Germany for World War II. He parroted anti-Semitic thoughts yet he went to great lengths to help and save "good Jews" (as he thought of them) like director Otto Ehrhardt, Felix Wolfes (a student of his) and his friend Paul Crossmann for whom he rang up Reinhard Heydrich to save (in vain).

He tried to ingratiate himself with the Nazi regime but was inconsistent about it and offended more with his arrogance than he pleased with his favors. The composer ended up ignored, if not shunned, by the officialdom of the Third Reich. He dedicated works to Jewish artists like Bruno Walter, Arthur Eloesser and Alma Mahler, yet was capable of writing a cantata to Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland.

Thomas Mann, who admired his opera Palestrina (which he attended at its Munich premiere in 1917), thought him an "anti-democratic nationalist," Hitler spoke of him derisively as a "Jewish rabbi," and friend Bruno Walter stopped communicating with him when Pfitzner showed himself unrepentant after the war.

We gather that he was difficult to like. Bruno Walter probably said it best when he wrote to his publisher, after Pfitzner’s death: "Have we not found in [Pfitzner’s] personality the strangest mix of true greatness and intolerance that has ever made the life of a musician of such a rank so problematic?"

But the music of Pfitzner is too good to ignore, and in this anniversary year, three German Opera companies staged Pfitzner. Chemnitz tackled the largely forgotten, largely forgettable Die Rose vom Liebesgarten in a very professional staging. The Frankfurt and Munich Operas work on a different scale, of course, and they tackle Pfitzner’s Magnum Opus, Palestrina.

*

The subject is the 16th century composer Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina who prevents music being banned from church service at the council of Trent through his ingenious mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, written under distress, angelic influence and breaking his writer’s block. A sub-plot has his student Silla decide that the old master’s traditional ways are not suited to his creative endeavors and plans to move to that secular sin-city of free roaming artists: Florence.



Bavarian State Opera's Palestrina stars Christopher Ventris in the title role. Also featured are Michael Volle as Giovanni Morone, John Daszak as Bernardo Novagerio, Peter Rose as Pope Pius IV, Roland Bracht as Cardinal Christoph Madruscht, Falk Struckmann as Carlo Borromeo, Wolfgang Koch as Graf Luna, Ulrich Reß as the Bishop of Budoja, Christiane Karg as Ighino and Gabriela Scherer as Silla.

Directed by Christian Stückl, the design team consists of Stefan Hageneier (sets and costumes) and Michael Bauer (lighting).

Palestrina will enjoy three additional winter performances at the National Theater: Jan. 28, Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. The production will be featured in this summer's Munich Opera Festival, with performances scheduled for July 10 and July 14.

For tickets and information in English, visit Bavarian State Opera.

* * * * * * * *

All photos by Wilfried Hösl for Bavarian State Opera.

Christopher Ventris, as Palestrina, and the Angels

Christopher Ventris, as Palestrina, and the Angels

Christopher Ventris, as Palestrina, and the Ghosts

The cast of Palestrina

Falk Struckmann as Carlo Borromeo and Christopher Ventris as Palestrina
Michael Volle as Giovanni Morone

Christopher Ventris as Palestrina

John Daszak as Bernardo Novagerio and Falk Struckmann as Carlo Borromeo

Christiane Karg as Ighino and Gabriela Scherer as Silla

Michael Volle as Giovanni Morone and Wolfgang Koch as Count Luna

Peter Rose, as Pope Pius IV, and the cast of Palestrina





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