MALIPIERO:  I Capricci di Callot 
Martina Winter, soprano (Giacinta); Markus Müller, tenor (Giglio); Gro Bente Kjellevold, mezzo-sop. (La Vecchia Beatrice); Bernd Valentin, baritone (Il Principe Travestito da Ciarlatano); Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Il Poeta); J–rg Sabrowski, baritone (Una Maschera); Thosten Schmid-Kapfenburg, piano/Kiel Philharmonic Orch/Peter Marschik, cond.

cpo 999 830 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  93:12
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Possibly the most respected Italian composer between the death of Puccini and the rise of Dallapiccola and Nono (both his pupils), Malipiero created a huge output including thirty-five operas, over a dozen symphonies, and a large cycle of string quartets, as well as various fugitive pieces, many quite substantial. Malipiero, like Poe, lived essentially for art and, like Poe, believed that great art eliminated the vulgar -- a rather serious misreading of the past. "Popular art" struck Malipiero, unfortunately, as a contradiction. At any rate, I find a lot of his work too bloodless, too damned refined, and too concerned with art for its own good.

I Capricci di Callot transcends some of these limitations. Malipiero writes in conscious reaction against verismo opera (read Puccini and Leoncavallo). Indeed, he considered the previous generation of opera debased, compared to the good old days of Monteverdi, Peri, Cavalli (he edited Monteverdi's complete work), and even Mozart. The libretto, written by the composer, comes from a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann but, as its title suggests, seems inspired by the 17th-century drawings of Italian carnival figures by Callot. The plot is a mess. One searches vainly for believable motivation in any of the characters. I'm still trying to figure out the charlatan (ciarlatano) and the poet (il poeta), key to the mechanics of the plot: the libretto doesn't help. It's sort of like a Twilight Zone episode set to music, but without the verisimilitude. It strikes me in many ways as an "anti-opera." Malipiero eschews anything so crude as an aria. Almost all the really great moments (and there are quite a few) come from extended, purely instrumental passages, mainly dances for silent masquers. I think especially of a gorgeous moment where, according to the libretto, a nightingale's song is answered by "a thousand others." In short, neither the characters nor the story have caught Malipiero's attention. The costumes, the element of strangeness, the carnival have.

Nevertheless, even without a drama, the music manages to be dramatic. Malipiero writes a cross between a continuous and a "number" opera -- the numbers all instrumental. The opera proceeds mainly by scene, and the music keeps the scenes moving, pretty much as it does in Wagner, but without vocal set-pieces like Siegfried's Sword-Forging Song. However, although the music shuttles the listener along, it gives the listener little reason to return. Despite all these disadvantages, Malipiero manages to create at least a sympathetic character in the seamstress ingÈnue, Giacinta. The part of the plot that works is the estrangement between her and her actor boyfriend, Giglio, due to their impossible longing for a noble station in life. She wishes she were a princess; he is convinced he is "really" a prince. One doesn't care so much for Giglio, but one feels Giacinta's anguish when Giglio leaves her to find a princess worthy of him. The carnival allows them to live out their dreams for a moment, but finally they realize that their love for each other is superior to their fantasies.

Curiously, much of the opera's musical idiom comes from Puccini, a composer Malipiero tried to buck against, particularly the pentatonicism of works like Gianni Schicchi, La fanciulla del West, and, of course, Turandot. The only things missing are the killer aria and the sumptuousness of Puccini's orchestration; Malipiero tends to score more astringently, as if massed horns would kill him. However, Malipiero's opera works, to the extent that it works, pretty much the same way Puccini's operas do. Contrary to the composer's intentions, it doesn't stand as an exemplar of a radically new approach to musical drama.

The cast is quite good, if not internationally stellar. Winter and Kjellevold stand out as singers who can act with their voice. As with many opera recordings these days, this is apparently a live performance, and it's a good one. It makes a case for Malipiero. The sound is good, if not great, for a live job, with only a couple of misbalances, nevertheless quickly corrected. However, we listen to a real pit orchestra, rather than a symphony orchestra on an extracurricular gig. There aren't quite as many strings as one would hear in, say, the Berlin Phil. CPO has been lucky in the Kiel Opera. I'd also recommend Seibel's accounts of Delius's Village Romeo and Juliet (sung in German) and Schelling's Mona Lisa, for those of you who like to wallow in the sounds of the late 19th-century orchestra.

S.G.S. (July 2002)