Political Terror Spans Time, Place In Redrawn Operas

Leonardo Estévez, as the condemned man in Dallapiccola’s ‘Il prigioniero,’ is subjected to several kinds of torture.
(Photo by M. Parpagnoli/Teatro Colón)
By James L Paulk

BUENOS AIRES — To close out its opera season, Teatro Colón mounted a dark, daring double bill combining Luigi Dallapiccola’s best-known work, Il prigioniero (The Prisoner), with his first opera, Volo di notte (Night Flight), seen Oct. 26. The mid-20th-century Italian composer probably gets more attention in this city than anywhere else, for reasons both political and musical.

Dallapiccola was a pioneering modernist, the first Italian to use twelve-tone principles. Yet his sound in both operas is distinctly Italian, melodic and adapted nicely for the voice. Alban Berg might have been his strongest influence, but he carried around a lot of Verdi as well. Although his language was already fully developed for Volo di notte, one of the pleasures of this experience is the juxtaposition of the earlier work with Il prigioniero, his masterpiece. The latter has a much larger sound palate and includes expert use of the chorus.

In ‘Il Prigioniero,’ false hope precedes the final torture. (A. Colombaroli/Teatro Colón)

Dallapiccola set his 1948 opera Il prigioniero during the Spanish Inquisition. A condemned prisoner is visited by his mother. He is intermittently tortured, then visited by a jailer who tells of a revolutionary plot, giving him hope. In the end, he finds his door open and slips into a garden, only to discover that the Grand Inquisitor awaits him there. The jailer’s story was a ruse, and the suggestion is that false hope is the worst torture.

‘Volo Di Notte’ (Night Flight) is set in a Buenos Aires airfield. (A. Colombaroli)

Volo di notte (1939) was actually set in Buenos Aires. The head of an aviation company is obsessed with profits and willing to risk the lives of his brave pilots in night flights during bad weather. A pilot is in trouble and then goes missing, his messages relayed from the radio operator. The opera is a meditation on death and power, clearly meant as a reference to Mussolini’s Italy.

Michał Znaniecki, the director, staged both works with heavy references to Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the military junta murdered as many as 30,000 people. For Volo di notte, the airfield becomes a military one. The flights (with a realistic biplane descending from fly loft) become the infamous “death flights,” when prisoners were thrown to their deaths. Rivière, the airfield director, seems intended to represent General Galtieri, who headed the junta.

Wearing white scarves, the women protest another missing pilot in 'Volo di Notte' (M. Parpagnoli)
Wearing white scarves, women protest another pilot disappearance in ‘Volo di Notte.’
(M. Parpagnoli)

Simona Fabien, wife of the missing pilot, confronts Rivière in one of the opera’s most dramatic scenes. She appears with a group of women wearing white scarves, the symbol of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” the courageous women who, after their children disappeared mounted regular protests and hastened the end of the junta’s rule. And the director has added an angry mob to the final scene of the opera, bearing signs protesting Rivière, a proxy for the mobs who protested the junta.

Il prigioniero was updated to the junta era and set in a dingy prison, with gruesome torture scenes and bodies dragged into piles amid unremitting horror. The male chorus, dressed in military uniforms, appears in scenes where they are suspended on wires, tormenting women prisoners who are then dropped to their death, linking up to the “death flights” in the Volo di notte. The prisoner’s mother becomes part of the “Mothers of the Plaza,” another link to Argentine history and to the first opera. The airplane even makes an appearance.

Almost anywhere else, this degree of updating and reworking might be considered heavy-handed. But in Argentina, with its recent history of torture, execution, and military excess, the effect is really staggering — a tour de force.

It helps that the musical performances were superb. In Volo di notte, baritone Víctor Torres was a strong Rivière, his character more believable because of his complex, often sympathetic portrayal. Soprano Daniela Tabernig was a searing Simona, vocally and dramatically. And tenor Carlos Ullán was a standout as Pellerin, one of the pilots.

As the Prisoner in Il prigioniero, baritone Leonardo Estévez delivered the full range of emotions from despair to unbounded optimism. Mezzo-soprano Adriana Mastrángelo gave a solid, moving portrayal of the Mother. Tenor Fernando Chalabe was chilling as the Grand Inquisitor, and deceptively kind in his portrayal of Carcelero, the jailer (he sang both roles).

Composer Luigi Dallapiccola
Composer Luigi Dallapiccola

Conductor Christian Baldini, born in Argentina and based in California, is a rising force here and internationally. This performance showed why, with its great transparency and fine attention to detail. He never overplayed his hand and he supported his singers nicely. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Colón orchestra play with such finesse.

Hearing these two operas in such strong performances, it’s impossible not to wonder why Dallapiccola is so neglected, especially in the U.S. True, twelve-tone music can be a tough sell, but Berg’s operas are performed with some regularity, and Dallapiccola’s sound is more lyrical than Berg’s. Most of his operas are short, apparently so they could more easily be performed on the radio. So all sorts of pairings are possible. –

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.