Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1936)
In the summer of 1935, while dealing with operatic projects on King Lear and Macbeth, Respighi read Shakespeare"s poem The Rape of Lucrece. After consulting Livy"s Histories, the original source of this edifying Roman legend, he turned to Andre Obey"s play Le viol de Lucrece (1931), which made a particular impression on him, since it makes use of two Recitants who comment on the action, in the manner of a Greek chorus. In Respighi"s own operatic version these parts would be united into one La Voce, a dramatic mezzo-soprano, and sung from the orchestra pit. With this idea in mind, the composer approached his librettist.
Once again Claudio Guastalla, who had previously prepared the libretti of Respighi"s operas Belfagor, La campana sommersa, La fiamma and Maria Egiziaca, and of his ballet Belkis, regina di Saba, embarked on the collaboration, not without moments of disagreement. Both parties had strong ideas and the fact that a Roman legend had to be set to music, while avoiding some dangerous pseudo-archaisms in the text and the extravert nature of the orchestral writing displayed in the earlier trilogy of Roman tone-poems, caused many discussions.
Obey"s play had been written for a Paris actors" group of fifteen, called La Compagnie des Quinze. Now a full play of four acts had to be transformed into a sixty minute one-act opera and the concern of both composer and librettist was not only to reduce a great deal of secondary dialogue, of soldiers, servants and townspeople, but also to tighten the part of the two Recitants, who seem to us today to be unduly prolix. Guastalla"s adaptation is very intelligent and has, obviously, more Latin flavour in its text.
The short score of Lucrezia was completed within two months. In the autumn of 1935 Respighi began the orchestration, while at the same time working on an arrangement of Francesco Cavalli"s Medea. Negotiations with the Teatro alia Scala led to the scheduling of Lucrezia and Medea in a double-bill production for the 1936-37 season.
In January 1936 Respighi"s doctor diagnosed endocarditis lenta viridans, a bacterial infection which at that stage a d in those years was still incurable and which led, with Respighi"s strong physique, to a long struggle of four months against death. The manuscript of the opera had not left his bedside since the start of his illness, even though Respighi could hardly bear to look at it. The same illness also caused a distortion o his hearing, not only making him hear real sounds in a distorted form but later causing him to endure nightmarish musical fragments heard inside his h ad, bringing about a real aversion from music. Since the first symptoms had already appeared in April 1935, it is possible that Lucrezia was composed with that unpleasant feeling that Respighi reports as having started by making him hear "from one ear half a tone lower than from the other", with the obvious terror that he might become completely deaf.
It was Respighi"s widow Elsa, herself a gifted composer, who after her husband"s death completed the orchestration of some 29 pages of Lucrezia, starting with the soprano"s final aria "non sono pill quella di ieri". The composer"s drafts and the fact that the opera had been played to her almost daily, while it was sketched, were of great help. The results of her work are so good that it is impossible to detect any stylistic break, as it had been, for example, in Franco Alfano"s completion of Puccini"s Turandot. An unusual circumstance was that in the autograph that Respighi left the singing parts had not yet been entered. This might be the result of the composer"s urge to finish the more important part of his work, the orchestration, after eventually having guessed the fatal nature of his illness, a fact that had always been concealed from him. Elsa"s additional and painful task, assisted by the composer Ennio Porrino, was to add also those singing parts.
The first performance of the work at the Teatro alla Scala on 24th February, 1937, under the baton of Gino Marinuzzi and with Maria Caniglia as Lucrezia and Ebe Stignani as La Voce, was coupled with Respighi"s mystery play Maria Egiziaca and a choreographic version of his orchestral suite Gli Uccelli. These last two works took the place of the unfinished Medea. Shortly afterwards the same production was mounted at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, under the same conductor, and at the Roman Teatro Reale dell? Opera under Tullio Serafin. Caniglia was to sing Lucrezia again, and for the last time, in a Turin broadcast of 1938. In the 1960s it was Anna de Cavalieri who revived this part on stage and on the radio in unforgettable dramatic renderings. As for the part of La Voce, this was to be displayed with all its difficult and varied characteristics by great mezzos such as Fedora Barbieri, Miriam Pirazzini and Oralia Dominguez.
Although scored for an ensemble of normal symphonic dimensions (piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, thr e trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings), the Respighis considered Lucrezia as a work for "chamber orchestra", not only because it appears to be on a smaller scale, orchestrally, than Feste romane (1928), La fiamma (1933) and Belkis, regina di Saba (1934), but also because its musical language is more simple and straightforward. With Lucrezia the composer has conceived music reduced to a minimum of effects and sounding throughout as an almost unitary accompaniment. A few leit-motifs are to be found in the score, a short "Roman" fanfare, a "riding" motif, Tarquinio"s "erotic" theme and the "household" theme in the central episode. In the three short but very tense orchestral interludes (opening the soldiers" scene, concluding both the rape and Lucrezia"s suicide), although they sound heavier through many doublings of instruments, the musical material is still relatively sober, realisable through perusal of the vocal score.
Stylistically Lucrezia is a more complex affair. To the present writer it appears as a composer"s homage to various earlier influences in his career, as if, perhaps, he had decided to abandon the most dangerous once and for all and to praise only the one that had been predominant in his stylistic development. Monteverdi"s recitare cantando, in this case mainly connected with the narrative part of La Voce, reminds us of many of the earlier scores of Respighi, including his adaptation of Monteverdi"s Lamento d"Arianna in 1908, and the arrangement of L"Orfeo, which had been given its successful first performance at La Scala in March 1935. The decidedly more "dangerous" influence of Richard Strauss can be found in this score in the above-mentioned leit-motif describing the eroticism of Tarquinio, reaching a brutal climax in the interlude suggesting the rape. This particular interlude may even give the impression that the composer had tried to "rape" and not only pay tribute to the music of Richard Strauss. Lucrezia, on the other hand, has some recitativi accompagnati in the ancient style, but more ariosi reminding us of Puccini (Turandot in both "Non mi conosci, tu sei di razza straniera" and "L "orma d"un uomo stranier ...") and Verdi ("Perfido, perfido!", a reminiscence of Desdemona"s willow-song from Otello). The mysterious string chords that accompany Lucrezia"s retiring to her bedroom may be a distant echo of the interlude in Giordano"s Fedora, beside those few other tributes to Italian verismo in the score. Finally the "household" or "women"s" scherzoso and naive leit-motif, on which the music of the second tableau is based, is not without a certain Russian flavour, a trait of many of Respighi"s youthful symphonic works, while the three women are singing together, but turns rather to a baroque mood of great beauty when Lucrezia subsequently remains alone.
Fortunately these foreign influences in Respighi"s opera do not cloud its beauty and lyric power and the unmistakable personal style of the composer. There is enough musical impact to reach even symphonic dimensions and there is no moment where the tension begins to flag. In this very interesting and original short opera we can but approve Respighi"s definite return to a neoclassical form of musical drama, in which the singing parts become predominant and melody, whether recitativo, psalmody, arioso or simple song, is supported by a discreet and transparent accompaniment.
Even though, in some of her fiery outbursts, the hieratic character of a Greek chorus is surpassed, La Voce emotionally experiences each situation in the play, from the first scene of the nocturnal ride to her cries of "Vile!" at the climax, the rape and" A Roma!" at the very end. Occasionally she returns to moments of restrained fear and silent warning. To emphasize her passionate involvement Respighi inserted her strongly felt cries at the most critical moments of the drama, even interrupting or taking over the protagonist"s vocal line. The part of La Voce is one requiring particularly dramatic and varied vocal colouring. The composer"s apparent homage to Monteverdi should not always be taken as reliable, particularly at the moment of Tarquinio"s arrival, where La Voce too is infatuated by the erotic aura of the prince and succumbs to Straussian lyricism. In comparison Lucrezia and the other leading characters of the opera appear more static and stylistically more "contemporary", which means that they are the offspring of a few more centuries of Italian bel canto tradition. It may be asked why Lucrezia"s husband Collatino has a smaller singing part than Bruto, who himself is allowed an arietta and a very effective declamatory recitative in the finale (and also shows a stronger development of character). Tarquinio, on the other hand, seems not to need any aria as well, since a tremendous duet with Lucrezia awaits him, giving him a splendid opportunity to follow in the steps of Scarpia, not excluding also the lyric aspects of this r6le. Lucrezia, who sings about half of the music of the opera, has a part that makes great technical demands, especially at the end, where many lirico-spinto sopranos would find it almost impossible. Respighi conceived the role for the soprano Maria Caniglia, after admiring her in a successful interpretation of Maria Egiziaca in 1932.
The story of Lucrezia, whether legend or fact, had already inspired George Frideric Handel to a cantata in 1706. In 1946 Andre Obey"s play, as adapted by Ronald Duncan, was to provide the plot of Benjamin Brit ten"s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, in which the parts of the Recitants remained shared between two singers, a soprano and a tenor. As Livy tells us, it was the violent death of Lucretia that led the people to rise against the tyranny of the Tarquins and banish them from Rome, after the body of the martyr to chastity had been carried through the streets of the city. These events transformed Rome"s Etruscan monarchy into a republic. In the Italy of 1935, however, the final unison cry of "a Roma!" in Respighi"s opera was to be shortly followed by a decidedly regressive political change, if compared to that of 505 B.C.
Adriano (edited by Keith Anderson)