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SELDOM-PERFORMED 'PALESTRINA' PROVES REFINED OPERAS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT

One of the more shadowy figures in North American opera has long been "Palestrina," a 1917 opera by the German composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949).

It was deeply cherished by no less a musical authority than Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere in Munich and declared it one of the most profoundly moving experiences of his life.

Its scenario concerns the apocryphal account of how the great composer Palestrina felt his creative powers were exhausted and only reluctantly accepted a commission to compose a Mass which, it was hoped, would forestall the Council of Trent's attempts to ban polyphonic music from Catholic liturgy and return to plainchant.

But although "Palestrina" managed to stay in the "occasional" repertoire of a few major German opera houses, until recently it was little known elsewhere despite its reputation among musical insiders as a toweringly spiritual and rewarding work of art.

All this changed a week ago, when New York's Lincoln Center Festival 97 imported the 1997 British production of "Palestrina" by the Royal Opera for three performances co-presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company.

This was to be a major event in American operadom. And since this critic had an unfulfilled half-century love affair with "Palestrina," I wrote an article for the July 20 News tracing the growth of this infatuation, describing the music, which finally became available on recording in 1974, promising to make the trek to New York and to report back on why it has taken this opera so long to find its way abroad.

Among the more obvious reasons are the opera's 4 1/2 -hour length and the extremely static nature of its first and third acts. No, this is admittedly not a work for those whose preference in opera is exclusively for the sex, violence and drama found in such standards as "Tosca," "Rigoletto" and "Carmen."

Another fact militating against proliferation of "Palestrina" is the huge size of the cast, with 39 separate roles. When the cast includes singers of the caliber of Robert Tear, Thomas Allen, Kim Begley, Gwynne Howell, Siegfried Vogel, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Sergei Leiferkus in supporting roles, you know it's a difficult opera to stage.

Restricted, therefore, to major opera houses, "Palestrina" still taxes one's attention span because it's an opera of ideas, not action.

For example, Act 1 is an hour and three-quarters long and concerns: Palestrina's son and a pupil discussing the composer's style and new directions in which younger composers were moving the art; Palestrina's argument with Cardinal Borromeo when he refuses the commission; his soliloquy about loss of his wife, friends and his creative powers followed by ghosts of great composers urging him to defend the use of polyphony, and the final frantic composition of the "Pope Marcellus Mass."

In the Royal Opera/Metropolitan production, three main forces conspired to sustain my interest.

First and foremost was the music itself. Pfitzner's score obviously owes a debt to Wagner but also bears individual fingerprints which include a unique kind of serene, confident mysticism and spirituality, full of chromaticism and with an unerring sense of the proper place for dramatically effective modulations. It gives the rewardingly lyrical vocal lines, superbly sung by American tenor Thomas Moser as Palestrina and baritone Alan Held as Borromeo, a consistent loft and logic, especially when considering how well Pfitzner dovetails his musical and textual ideas over the long pull.

In addition, the orchestral support always had its own creamy but somewhat austere identity, wholly rewarding on its own but, under Christian Thielemann's baton, never competing with or covering the voices. Significantly, Thielemann got louder bravos than the singers during the curtain calls.

Second, the stage direction by Nikolaus Lehnhoff provided an imaginative series of stage movements, as convincing visually as the composer had been in his music.

And the sets by Tobias Hoheisel were a feast for the eye, employing off-white walls and a deep-set, single large window and varying light intensities to create a visual spirituality matching that of the music. I felt that Vermeer, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth might have had a hand in creating these interior scenes.

"Palestrina" may never rival the operas of Puccini or Mozart, but in a production as persuasive as this, I see no reason why anyone devoted to Wagner's "Ring Cycle" would not find similar pleasures in Pfitzner's refined, serene, esoteric masterpiece.

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