American Symphony Orchestra Presents Two Anti-Fascist Operas Feb 20th

Luigi Dallapiccola Il prigioniero (The Prisoner) and Volo di notte (Night Flight, based on Saint-Exupéry’s novel) in Lincoln Center Concert on Feb 20

Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra in two operas by Luigi Dallapiccola (pictured), the outspoken anti-fascist Italian composer: Night Flight (Volo di notte) and The Prisoner (Il prigioniero) are being performed in concert on Friday, February 20 at 8 pm in Lincoln Center ’s Avery Fisher Hall. Leon Botstein chose these operas by the politically-engaged Dallapiccola (1904-75) as superb examples of “masterworks of conscience”. In his program note for the concert, Botstein writes, “It is not an exaggeration to assert that Luigi Dallapiccola was the greatest Italian composer of the 20th century,” and draws parallels between the evils of the composer’s day and our own:

“More than a quarter century after the death of Luigi Dallapiccola, especially in light of events of our own generation, a wider appreciation of the intensity and humanism of Dallapiccola’s modernism is timely. These two operas reveal the power of music to tell the truth. Modernism, surprisingly, has its human side that requires no concession to popularity or aestheticized familiarity. If Aaron Copland deserves to be honored as the most eloquent voice of the optimistic possibilities offered by freedom, Dallapiccola [Copland’s contemporary] is the 20th century’s most powerful voice on behalf of the struggle for freedom through an art of originality, provocation, resistance, and the candid revelation of anguish and fear.”

Among the composer’s most affecting works, Night Flight and The Prisoner make significant moral statements in differing styles. Dallapiccola completed Volo di notte (Night Flight) in 1939 in direct response to the rise of fascism, basing his own libretto on a novel by French author and dedicated pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. The Prisoner – Dallapiccola’s one-act opera first performed in 1949 – explores ideas of torture, deception, and hope in a world without justice, with ever-growing threats from conflict of political systems, atomic warfare, and increasing international commercialism.

Saint-Exupéry’s 1931 novel Vol de nuit was published with a preface by André Gide. The book – upon which Dallapiccola began composing his opera in 1937 – recounts the author’s experiences as an airmail pilot in Argentina . Paul Griffiths writes in his ASO program essay:

“Dallapiccola found his voice in protest. After a long period of training and self-education, during which first Debussy and then Schoenberg were shocks to his system, he began to make headway at last as a composer when he was around 30, at a time when the nature of Italian fascism was becoming clear.”

“For a composer concerned to change the language of music and theater – a composer who had been among the first outside Schoenberg’s milieu to adopt twelve-tone principles and for whom Berg provided a new model of opera – it was necessary to reclaim ‘the future’ from those who thought they saw it at the tip of a bayonet.”

Issues of style aside, American audiences today should be particularly sensitive to the issues raised by Dallapiccola’s works. The question of civil liberties – and the abuse of them by the government – certainly played a role in the outcome of the recent Presidential election, and the decision to close the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba within the next year was one of the first announced by the incoming Obama administration.

When Botstein and the ASO last chose to feature Dallapiccola’s music, in October 2003, their decision was embraced by the press. MusicWeb’s review noted that “although seldom-performed here in the U.S. , [Dallapiccola’s work] is not only gorgeous to listen to, but has all-too-timely content,” before concluding:

“The entire afternoon was marked by complete commitment, with the [Chorus] responding with fervor to this unusual program. Every measure sprang to life. The orchestra, too, sounded completely immersed in these unusual scores ... . This inspiringly unconventional concert will be later recalled as one of the year’s highlights.”

Dallapiccola was born to Italian parents in 1904 at Pisino d’Istria. The strategic Adriatic peninsula of Istria – once part of the Roman Empire, later squabbled over by Austria and Italy , then part of Yugoslavia , and now of Croatia – belonged to the Austrian empire at the time of his birth, and the ongoing political disputes led to frequent moves for the Dallapiccola family. Soon after World War I broke out, the family was interned at Graz , Austria , where the young Luigi attended concerts and local opera performances, and determined to become a composer. Before the end of the war, the family returned to mainland Italy , and the budding musician resumed his studies.

Dallapiccola took a piano degree at the conservatory in Florence in the1920s, later teaching piano as a “secondary study”. He was named professor in 1934, and remained in Florence until his retirement in 1967 (Luciano Berio, Bernard Rands, and Donald Martino were among his students). He studied composition with Vito Frazzi, a disciple of Pizzetti, and in 1924 first heard Pierrot Lunaire. In the 1930s, his musical experiences widened – he heard Mahler, Busoni, Webern, and Berg, who was, according to Leon Botstein’s essay for this program, “the most influential figure in Dallapiccola’s creative exploration.”

Dallapiccola’s early experiences under Benito Mussolini’s regime affected him and his work until his death. Like many Italians, he originally supported Mussolini, but the dictator’s Abyssinian campaign, involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and sympathy with Hitler's anti-Semitism opened the composer’s eyes. The Fascist-Nazi “axis” endangered him and his half-Jewish wife. Botstein quotes Dallapiccola’s comment about the progressively harder situation that would ultimately send him and his wife into hiding for the duration of the War:

“Between 1942 and 1943 … it became increasingly clear to me that I must write an opera which … would portray the tragedy of our times and the tragedy of persecution felt and suffered by millions of individuals.”

Coming as it did after World War II, Il prigioniero restored Dallapiccola and his work to public attention. The libretto, also of his own devising (although based on more than one source), tells of a prisoner who is persuaded that a kindly jailer has released him. Instead he immediately encounters the Grand Inquisitor, is tortured, and burned at the stake.

Dallapiccola traveled widely, and was invited to Tanglewood by Serge Koussevitzky for the summers of 1951 and 1952. He also taught composition at New York ’s Queens College . His final opera, Ulisse, set to his own libretto based upon Homer’s Ulysses, would mark the peak of his career in 1968.. He suppressed all his earliest compositions, but scholars with appropriate bonafides can get access to the MSS.


Friday, February 20, 8 pm
“Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience”
Leon Botstein conducts the American Symphony Orchestra
Luigi Dallapiccola: two operas in concert
    Volo di notte (Night Flight, 1939)
    Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner, 1948)

Soloists include Lori Phillips, Scott Williamson, Richard Zeller, Peter Tantsits, David Pittman-Jennings, and Donald Kaasch
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell, director

Tickets start at just $28. Group discounts available. All ticket sales are final.

Richard Wilson will give an illuminating pre-concert talk at 6:45 pm in the auditorium of Avery Fisher Hall, free to ticket holders.

Learn more about this concert and the rest of the season at www.americansymphony.org

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