The Kansas City Star
, January 2011
The music of Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949) is hardly ever heard anymore, but anyone who loves the lush, over-the-top orchestral sound of Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss will certainly appreciate this late Romantic composer.
His best-known opera, “Palestrina,” tells the story of the great 16th century Italian composer and his struggle at the Council of Trent to convince the church not to abandon polyphony. Not exactly your typical grand opera plot, but a new DVD from Euroarts demonstrates how this obscure moment in music history makes a compelling opera.
When I first saw the DVD cover with the cartoonish costumes and blaring colors, I braced myself for a Eurotrashy production. And, although there are excesses, like the Dominican friar licking an ice cream cone, and the cardinals arriving by limousine, for the most part, the director’s bold concept works.
The intense color scheme is jarring but also strangely mystical. The angels who descend at the end of the first act to inspire Palestrina have brilliant green wings that accentuate their otherworldly character. Another startling surprise is the giant puppet head representing Palestrina’s wife, which looms large at the end of the first act. Oddly, the effect is not comic but touching.
The opera lacks tunes, to be sure, but Pfitzner’s romantic score is so lusciously textured that they’re hardly missed. Bavaria is one of the few places where Pfitzner’s music is still regularly performed, and the Bavarian State Orchestra and a talented cast of German singers present the opera with conviction.