Luigi Dallapiccola, Volo di notte

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.

Dallapiccola found his voice in protest. After a long period of training and self-education, during which first Debussy and then Schoenberg were shocks to his system, he began to make headway at last as a composer when he was around thirty, at a time when the nature of Italian fascism was becoming clear. The conquest of Abyssinia in 1935-6, occurring as he was completing his first published works, was soon succeeded by Italy’s participation, with Germany, on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A political movement that had pointed itself toward the future, and thereby gained some support from forward-looking artists (Dallapiccola among them), was proving where its real purposes and allegiances lay.

These were the circumstances under which, in April 1937, Dallapiccola began work on his first opera, Volo di notte (Night Flight), to a libretto he himself drew from the novel Vol de nuit by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. By the time he finished the score, two years later, the situation was darker still. Growing ever closer to Nazi Germany, Italy had passed its own anti-Jewish laws in 1938, and, just a month after Volo di notte was finished, the two countries signed a “pact of friendship.” For a composer concerned to change the language of music and theater—a composer who had been among the first outside Schoenberg’s milieu to adopt twelve-tone principles and for whom Berg provided a new model of opera—it was necessary to reclaim “the future” from those who thought they saw it at the tip of a bayonet.

Astonishingly, Volo di notte was scheduled to receive its première in Germany in the fall of 1939, but that production, at Braunschweig, was cancelled, and the first performance took place in the composer’s adopted city of Florence the following spring, with Europe now at war.

In one of several crucial departures from the novel, Dallapiccola places the action of this aviation story entirely on the ground, in the offices of the air company. Through a transparent screen at the back, the airfield can be seen, and the landing of an airplane provides the piece with its big scenic moment, marking this as one of those operas made to bring contemporary life to the lyric stage. The human drama, however, concerns not the aviators themselves but those who have responsibility for them—principally, the company director Rivière.

He is the man who, dedicated to his task, finds himself opposed to all other demands, whether of human connection or of poetic feeling. His concern is for the project, that of transporting mail across great distances overnight, not for the pilots entrusted with it, one of whom, Fabien, falls victim. Because we are on the ground, Fabien’s tragedy has to be narrated by a radio operator, but, as Dallapiccola well realized, this device gives the work the aspect of Greek tragedy, where, similarly, sudden death is not portrayed but recounted, and thereby magnified in its shock and horror.

Rivière’s determination is countered by the emotions and sensitivities of others, most pointedly Fabien’s wife, who is the only female character. But though she is present in just one scene, and though the encounter between her and Rivière has a special charge, the opera is hinged throughout between progress and preservation, fixed plan and sensitive flexibility, future and past. Berg had shown the way into this rich middle-ground, and Dallapiccola followed his example in interweaving tonal and twelve-tone elements (as in the opening music, suggestive of the night sky and brought back later), in using varieties of speech and speech-song, and in adopting strict forms, notably a repeating rhythmic pattern in the third scene and a chorale with variations in the fifth.

“Unconsciously,” Dallapiccola recalled, “and for the first time in my life, in Volo di notte I made my choice: to prefer those who suffer to those who achieve victory.” Yet Rivière is no villain, and his passion was to reverberate throughout Dallapiccola’s output, as far as the Odyssean opera with which this remarkable composer brought his life’s work to its culmination thirty years later.