Not all masterpieces are recognised as such by the era that gave them birth, but when their time comes, often through the power of a single performance, their impact and stature are incontestable. Such was the case with this Philharmonia Orchestra performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s one-act opera Il prigioniero (The Prisoner). Written in the late 1940s and clearly influenced by the Italian composer’s childhood internment in Austria as much as his views on church/state absolutism, it inhabits a genre entirely of its own – part political allegory, part psychological monodrama, masquerading as an opera but capable of casting a theatrical spell in the right concert hall setting, as it did here.
Like so many post-Schoenbergian works, Il prigioniero has had to fight its modernist reputation in order to prove its lyrical inspiration and universal message – a message about torture and imprisonment as relevant to the 21st century as it was at the time of the Inquisition (the genesis of the story) and the Fascist nightmare of Dallapiccola’s experience.
Conducted with chilling clarity by Esa-Pekka Salonen and brilliantly staged by David Edwards, this performance spoke more persuasively than any Amnesty International protest – and much more forcefully than the English National Opera staging of 11 years ago. There was theatre before a note had sounded, with Lauri Vasar’s haggard, barefoot Prisoner tottering centre-stage in the company of two thuggish minders. From start to finish he sang in a way that compelled our attention, sympathy and belief, at one point perching on his chair in the stance of a giant crucifix. David Holmes’s atmospheric lighting, all smoke and spots, fertilised a score that ranged unpredictably through a host of emotions – terror, consolation, hope, tenderness, suspense, resignation – thanks to Salonen’s command of its translucent textures and tense climaxes.
Paoletta Marrocu “acted” the Mother with heart-rending pathos, while Peter Hoare’s Gaoler, dressed as a priest (religion as gaoler of free thought), sounded as plausible as he looked. All this, plus the immaculately prepared Philharmonia Voices, was so good that Salonen’s generic Beethoven Fifth Symphony before the interval withered into a forgettable footnote.