Alan Gilbert’s last few seasons at the New York Philharmonic have featured an opera in June. While previous efforts have featured elaborate staging, this year’s installment, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, was performed in concert. For this particular work, which was written for radio broadcast, this seems only appropriate.

Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The program opened, however, with a satisfactory but oddly perfunctory account of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1. Soloist Lisa Batiashvili’s tone has depth without sacrificing brilliance, and sure technique and intonation. But despite her polished playing, this performance skated across the surface of the music. While Batiashvili took a songful, 19th-century approach to the solo part – the long lines of the slow first movement unfolding with smooth legato, and the fireworks of the scherzo second movement lightly thrown off – Gilbert’s accompaniment was minimalistic, so quiet and unassertive to almost disappear. This lack of ensemble stymied the twists and turns of the last movement in particular. Only in a few moments, such as a duet with the flute in the first movement and with the oboe in the last movement did this performance feel necessary.

Dallapiccola’s 1949 opera Il prigioniero is a considerably more complex matter. Part of a postwar spate of operas written for radio broadcast, without the expectation of full staging, it tells a nightmarish story of a prisoner reconciling himself to imminent execution. For a composer who had spent part of World War II in hiding, the choice of subject is suggestive, and, for a radio opera, singularly apt: we hear the events from the perspective of the prisoner himself, who like the audience, can’t see much. (The prisoner is one of the persecuted residents of Flanders during the reign of Philip II, a conflict familiar to many operagoers as the backdrop of Verdi’s Don Carlos, but the concerns are timeless.) The music must represent both the reality and the emotional effects of his imprisonment. Predictably, the line between aural reality and delusion begins to blur.

Il prigioniero is written in the serial technique of Berg and Schoenberg, but other than the atonality it doesn’t resemble their work to a great degree. The string writing tends to be highly polyphonic, and the vocal lines often recall the cantabile lines of other Italian operas. Gilbert’s account was oriented towards clarity and large-scale contrasts. At its climaxes, such as the Latin interjections from the chorus were, often, very loud indeed, while occasionally the orchestra was quiet enough to allow the cast to sing with half voice. (At other times they overpowered the singers.)

The opera begins with a prologue sung by the prisoner’s mother, whose anguished cries for her missing son eventually crossfade with the “First Choral Intermezzo.” As the Mother, Patricia Racette’s soprano was pushed to its limits of volume, and her singing was more emphatic than specific. In contrast, Gerald Finley as the prisoner sang with hushed emotional intimacy, only sometimes letting his whole voice speak. His Scene 3 prayer and monologue was the vocal highlight of the performance. In the louder sections, one almost wished for someone a little more hammy (as in when the Prisoner decides that the greatest torture is to hope); Finley has unerring good taste but this is in some ways an opera of emotional excess. As the Jailer, Peter Hoare made fine music of the his more lyrical lines, but his lyric tenor was overpowered in the more dramatic moments.

This is a noisy opera, whose described sounds don’t always match what we hear – the sound of bells are evoked by scary tubas, the prisoner’s “silence” is a gentle lyrical section played by the whole string section. The Philharmonic was on fine form. But the ending uses this polyphony to powerful effect, melding the offstage Latin chorus with the jailer, who is transformed into the Grand Inquisitor, and the Prisoner realizes that the greatest liberty may be in death.

This is an odd opera, with some striking moments but at least in this performance somehow lacking a center. It is always great to hear this neglected postwar repertory, but sometimes it can be difficult to put it in its proper context. Gilbert and Philharmonic, however, can be proud of this performance.