Luigi Dallapiccola, Il prigioniero

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience, performed on Feb 20, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The origins of Dallapiccola’s second opera go back to June 1939, just a couple of months after he had completed Volo di notte. He was visiting Paris with his wife, who, looking through a volume of short stories by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, found one, “Torture par l’espérance” (Torture by Hope), that she thought he might adapt to the stage. So began a process lasting almost a decade. First Dallapiccola finished the set of choral prison songs, Canti di prigionia, he had started while Volo di notte was still in train. Then came the writing of a libretto for the new work, and the composition of other pieces, so that the score of Il prigioniero was not started until January 1944 and not brought to a conclusion until May 1948. Another two years passed before the first staging, again in Florence.

In the decade since Volo di notte, Dallapiccola’s music had become more thoroughly twelve-tone, but without losing several features that link the two operas, including tonal-atonal blendings, ostinatos, and the evocation of darkness by means of paradoxically luminous orchestration. There is the further similarity that this is again an opera largely of male characters, of men’s voices, with just one woman, the Mother, making a relatively brief—but crucial—appearance. And once more an offstage chorus is heard, its powerful contributions to this opera helping set the atmosphere of parable.

Yet another connection lies in the Bergian fascination with fixed forms set upon a swirling musical sea. In the third scene, notably, three sequences of recitative for the Prisoner are accompanied by orchestral “ricercares,” or contrapuntal inventions, on principal themes: first the melody the Prisoner sings to his prayer “Signore, aiutami a camminare” (Lord, help me to go on), then the three-note motif associated with the central and slippery word “fratello” (brother), and finally the sound of Roelandt, the great bell of Ghent that is rung as a signal of liberation.

The work’s long gestation surely contributed to its contradictions.1 Where the protagonist of the original story is a rabbi, and thus has clear reason for being incarcerated by the Spanish Inquisition, the central character of Il prigioniero has no name or history, so that the sixteenth-century references remain inexplicable except as homages to Verdi (whose Don Carlos unfolds in this same Spanish world—though Il trovatore may offer still closer parallels). The opera also presents its hero as alone, unlike the millions being imprisoned and slaughtered as Dallapiccola was beginning work. Being so, and suffering confinement without explanation, he is in the condition of a Kafka character—with the difference that he vociferously rejects the forces of his oppression.

Those forces appear not only malign but also whimsical, and so all-powerful that it is hard to imagine what “freedom” lies beyond their grip. The promises of liberation they hold out—of political liberation in the Jailer’s weird aria, of escape for the Prisoner in the ultimate scene—are illusions manipulated with appalling cynicism. At the end, when the Prisoner voices “freedom” as a question, we may feel he has been utterly crushed—or else that he has gained an insight raising him far above the powers around him. Freedom?