Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Thomas Becket in San Diego Opera's 'Murder… (Ken Howard )
SAN DIEGO — Devout opera companies caring to connect with Holy Week easily can. Along with the obvious choice of Wagner's "Parsifal," contemporary composers such as Harrison Birtwistle ("The Last Supper") and John Adams ("The Gospel According to the Other Mary") have been contributing to the cause.
On Easter Eve, San Diego Opera looked a little further afield, however, by offering the first major American production of Ildebrando Pizzetti's "Murder in the Cathedral" at Civic Theatre. A faithful adaptation of T.S. Eliot's play about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, the Italian opera had its premiere as "Assassinio nella Cattedrale" in Milan at La Scala in 1958. Time Magazine hailed Pizzetti as an also-ran who finally, with his 13th opera, made the big leagues.
In fact, Pizzetti has remained a very distant also-ran. "Murder in the Cathedral" and a beautifully austere a cappella requiem mass from 1922 are mainly what the Italian composer is remembered for, and barely that. San Diego Opera has unearthed no masterpiece. But the company has mounted "Murder in the Cathedral" as a vehicle for the compelling Italian bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto and done such an excellent job with the work musically and dramatically that with it San Diego Opera deserves the big-league kudos.
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Pizzetti's neglect is readily predictable. Though poised for progress, he had a knack for placing himself on the wrong side of history. In his early 20th century operas, he attempted to lift the melodramatic verismo style away from the popular Puccinian pathos and toward the higher ideals of classical Greek drama. But his increasingly reactionary tendencies ("Rite of Spring" freaked him out in 1913) alienated him from even the conservative Italian mainstream.
Toscanini, a fervent anti-Fascist, stopped conducting Pizzetti's music after World War II, offended by the composer's opportunistic coziness with Mussolini and also the increasing irrelevance of his musical style. The avant-garde Italian composers of the '50s adamantly rebelled against Pizzetti. Luciano Berio (whose father studied with Pizzetti) accused "Murder in the Cathedral" of murdering operatic innovation in Italy for a generation.
Even so, Pizzetti managed to exert a distinct influence on Italian music that reached far and wide — even all the way to Los Angeles. On evidence of a scene he scored for the silent Italian epic, "Cabiria," he might have become the first great film composer. He never pursued cinema, but he taught Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (who went on to influence many in Hollywood, including André Previn and John Williams) and Nino Rota (Fellini's favored composer). Pizzetti was also mentor to Franco Donatoni (Esa-Pekka Salonen's most important composition teacher).
Now more than half a century since "Murder in the Cathedral" had its first performance and 45 years since the composer's death in 1968, we may have finally reached the time to put Pizzetti in perspective. And that is what San Diego Opera is asking with its pious production by Ian D. Campbell, who is celebrating this season his 30th anniversary of the company's general and artist director.
Furlanetto's dignified Becket is a Christ-like figure returning to Canterbury, after a seven-year exile, to certain death. He asserts the need for separation of church and state, making reconciliation with King Henry II (who makes an appearance in the opera) impossible. The archbishop tosses aside his temptations — for good times, power, glory, sainthood — as easily as brushing off a mosquito.
PHOTOS: LA Opera through the years
The antiquated musical style hints at Debussy and the quieter Wagner, along with alluding to centuries old melodic techniques. Restraint and caution characterize every measure. Pizzetti rejected sounds modern and secular, dismissed luxuriousness, drained color from his orchestra and favored thin textures. Vocal lines revolve around declamation. Choral writing is intense. And all of this helps produce an arresting undercurrent of death.
Becket is the only fleshed-out character, and he is not all that fleshed-out, but rather Pizzettian in his uncompromising sanctimoniousness. He has a mission and he fulfills it. Furlanetto shows anger, especially when falsely accused by the four knights of the King. He is not a weary Thomas but a commandingly cranky and heroic one. His voice is dark, mature and powerful. The stage is his.