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by Seth Colter Walls

January 10, 2014

Modern Opera Hour: Il Prigioniero

by Seth Colter Walls  |  January 10, 2014

The works of Italian Luigi Dallapiccola, a 20th-century "serialist" (or atonal) composer, do not tend to receive many performances by American orchestras -- which is too bad! But last year, the New York Philharmonic did more than its part to address the problem with a complete concert performance of one of the composer's strongest works: the 50-minute opera Il Prigioiniero ("The Prisoner"), a work that wrestles with the existentially grim story of a doomed prisoner during the Spanish Inquisition.

For all the darkness that this narrative implies, Dallapiccola also makes the prisoner's strained optimism -- which is encouraged by a sadistic, lying jailor -- feel plausible, via some of the most lyrical atonal writing you're ever likely to hear. Conducted by Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic brought out the climaxes of piercing power in the music, but also its more tender subtleties (with help from a cast that included bass-baritone Gerald Finley, in the title role). The performance I saw was one of the highlights of my 2013 concert-going; I spent a good chunk of the rest of the year hoping the Philharmonic would release a live recording as part of their ongoing series. Especially since the only previous recording of this opera has fallen out of print.

Now the Philharmonic has done just this -- and, even better, they've provided Rhapsody with a translated libretto (linked below), so you can follow along with the plot in English, while streaming the opera performance in the original Italian. The translation takes a bit of getting used to, but with the Italian and English versions in front of your face, on the same PDF, you can keep track of the progressing narrative.

With raucously gorgeous orchestral music set to a story with some literary heft (think Kafka) and repressive-government political relevance, trust us: This is worth an hour of your time. (The prisoner's plaintive question, voiced on the album's second track -- "Oh how strange 'tis/ That we so seldom know whence hope comes" -- might be a question you've even asked of yourself, in response to a political figure or two.) So download the text, click play on our attached playlist, and experience an exquisite rarity of the 20th-century operatic repertoire.

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