Luigi Dallapicolla’s fifty-minute opera Il prigioniero is a distinctive slice of 20th-century musical history, yet is seldom performed. This is surely owing to the enormous forces called upon – I counted, I think seven or eight percussionists – for a relatively brief work and the challenges of committing it to vocal memory, let alone pairing it with something else. It received an outing in concert in 2014 under Sir Antonio Pappano’s baton at the Royal Festival Hall, sandwiched by excerpts from Beethoven's Ninth and Fidelio. The last full production in London was at ENO in the early 2000s; David Pountney mounted it at WNO in 2019 in an inspired pairing with the second act of Fidelio. Now Pappano returns to it, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. 

Sir Antonio Pappano
© LSO | Mark Allan

Dallapiccola’s scenario is after a story by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: during the Spanish Inquisition, an unnamed prisoner is visited by his mother, is goaded by his gaoler about the prospect of release, and seems to escape through a locked door into a garden, but is ultimately caught by the Grand Inquisitor. The opera ends with three unearthly strokes on tam-tam and a whispered question: “la liberta?” Dallapiccola wrote some of it in hiding during the final days of Italian fascism; it has the potent whiff of historical pressure, and plenty of contemporary resonances today. 

Dallapiccola’s music was given a peerless showing; in Pappano the composer has found the best possible advocate. He excels in this repertoire because of his agile grasp of expressionistic gesture and how it can underline text. He captured the verismo qualities of Dallapiccola’s music too, which fuses the serialist expressionism of Alban Berg with a lyric tradition that runs through Verdi and Puccini. Both Don Carlos and Tosca loom large in the score, thematically and musically; the latter especially so in the jagged, syncopated fanfares that launch the work, though it is a Tosca thrown into the psychological atom-smasher of existentialist philosophy. 

Eric Greene, Sir Antonio Pappano, Stefano Secco and the LSO
© LSO | Mark Allan

There are moments of unearthly beauty as well as violent, percussive terror and creased claustrophobia, all summoned by Pappano and the LSO with impeccable detail and care. The shattering choral intermezzi, delivered by the London Symphony Chorus from the distance, were terrifyingly hieratic, intimating some darkly processional ritual at the heart of incarceration; they were prepared by both William Spaulding and LSC old hand Simon Halsey. 

Baritone Eric Greene took the title role, and thrilled with his quiet singing: the ghostly, floated “Fratello” that hovered above the stave was hair-raising. At other times he sang with a panicked ecstasy, firing febrile Alleluias into the auditorium in the final sequence. Stefano Secco sang the Gaoler/Grand Inquisitor with an eerie lyricism; his is a slighter voice, but characterful enough, and his duet with Greene, where he describes the ultimate victory of the rebels, was chilling. Ángeles Blanca Gulín has sung the Mother before and it showed, her voice clearly dialled into the vertiginous top notes and extremes of registration that characterise her imploring, despairing sequence, opening the show with a gleaming top B flat. 

The large orchestral forces meant that both Greene and Secco were slightly occluded by the enthusiastic and committed playing of the LSO, at least when Dallapiccola’s score moves beyond the intimate chamber-like moments that make it so haunting; this would be less of a problem in a covered pit and with a sympathetic set. Let’s hope an enterprising house gives us the chance to compare soon. 

Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Sir Antonio Pappano and the LSO
© LSO | Mark Allan

The programme opened with Ottorino Respighi’s four-part Church Windows from 1925, which began life as a series of piano pieces and then acquired descriptive titles alluding to various biblical scenes later on. Pappano has a strong track record in this music, embracing the gaudy colours and gestural extravagance of the better-known Roman Trilogy, and led the LSO through the pieces with abandon. 

The highlight was an acrobatic second movement, a kind of orchestral Scherzo in which St Michael battles with the devil before casting him out of heaven with a great – and deliciously tacky – concluding splash of tam-tam; the LSO strings scythed their way through the glinting passagework. The final orchestral impression, a papal coronation that looms from the distance, had all the Technicolor brilliance and wanton theatricality of a great swords-and-sandals epic. Pure silliness, especially the organ solo... and perfect for a weekend dominated by pageantry.