COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD
Opera Scene – 'Murder in the Cathedral'

Archbishop’s devotion to church forces king’s vengeance against a martyr

Reaching beyond the standard opera repertory, San Diego Opera selected a rare but significant composition for its fourth production of the 2013 season. The chilling title is “Murder in the Cathedral,” an historic event that impacted English royalty and Roman Catholic rule in Great Britain for centuries to come.

The hideous act of assassinating a prince of the church by order of the king created a legacy for Archbishop Thomas Becket who defied the attempt of Henry II to seize control of the national church. The events leading up to the bloody attack in Canterbury Cathedral in the year 1170 make for a good drama that attracted British playwright T.S. Eliot, He fashioned a verse drama in 1935 that is still performed in classic theatre and is the subject of several films and television shows.

The opera by Ildebrando Pizzetti has no name recognition in the U.S. but is performed in the composer’s native Italy and elsewhere in Europe since its spectacular premiere in 1958 at La Scala. The libretto follows an Italian translation of the Eliot play depicting the last month of Becket’s life when he defied the English king over the authority of the church. Henry, who was Becket’s confidant since their youthful years, was angry that his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury would confront him by imposing the church’s right to consecrate the royal succession.

Legend records that a group of knights attending Henry’s court believed they heard the king shout, “Will no one rid me of the turbulent priest?” Taking that to be an order, they traveled to Canterbury to carry out the execution. It was a brutal act of hacking the primate as he was going to vespers after refusing to give a public account of his actions against the king. The flow of Becket’s blood was so extensive that the stones were never cleaned to document the Archbishop’s martyrdom for posterity. It has been a sacred site in the cathedral for centuries.

Taking the critical lead role of Thomas Becket, Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto returns to San Diego in this new production mounted specially for his star attraction. He has appeared with SDO frequently since 1985 in such stellar roles as King Philip in “Don Carlo,” and the title roles of Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov and Don Quixote.

The choir of the poor women of Canterbury is the story teller in the manner of a Greek chorus as they lament the prophesy that the Archbishop will be martyred for his loyalty to the church against the King’s command. American soprano Susan Neves in her SDO debut performs the First Chorister.

Donato Renzetti conducts his first SDO production after appearances with major orchestras and opera companies in Europe and America. The stage director is Ian Campbell, SDO General Director, undertaking an opera he has admired since 1970 but hadn’t found the right venue and key artist for the star until now with Furlanetto.

A feature article in [I]Opera News[/I] magazine for March compares the Pizzetti opera to Eliot’s play and its impact on the British theatre scene of 1935. Eliot used the conflict of power to warn the world of the rise of dictators in Europe. The conflict of state versus church is timeless in modern history.

Pizzetti’s opera score emphasizes the urgency and suspense of the libretto taken from the Eliot play. We all know assassins are coming to kill Becket who in his heart accepts the role of a martyr for the salvation of the church. Tension builds in the music with the suspicion that the murderous knights are lurking in the shadows as Becket moves through the cathedral accompanied by an elusive musical motif of the priest. It rises to a climax with the wailings of the poor women of Canterbury and the pleadings of hand-wringing priests trying to hide the archbishop from harm’s way.

There are few recordings of “Murder in the Cathedral.” Decca captured a 2008 performance in the Basilica di Nicole, and the world premiere at La Scala Milan was recorded in 1958 with the original cast. The music of the opera reflects a rather late-Puccini style at a time when other composers of Pizzetti’s era were experimenting with other new forms of composition and orchestration.

“Murder in the Cathedral” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday March 30, Tuesday April 2 and Friday April 5; and 2 p.m. Sunday April 7. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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