The Italian opera Assassinio nella Cattedrale, by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan) in 1958. It was also produced, a few months later, at the Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona). According to a note on the programme of this production, Pizzetti’s son had read Eliot’s play in English and recommended it to his father. In 1948, Pizzetti and his wife attended a performance of Eliot’s play, and she remarked that Murder in the Cathedral seemed perfect for him to adapt to opera.
In the early twentieth century, the young Pizzetti worked in close collaboration with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Some of his operas were inspired by Greek drama and myth; spirituality and symbolism were characteristic elements of his lyrical dramas. As his son and wife felt, Pizzetti seemed destined to compose Assassinio nella Cattedrale. He also wrote the libretto, drawing on the Italian translation of Eliot’s play by Alberto Castelli. The structure of the original text is mirrored by the opera: two acts and an intermezzo in which Beckett’s Christmas sermon, somewhere between operatic and liturgical singing, is accompanied by an orchestral arrangement both lyrical and full of foreboding.
Before this intermezzo, the conclusion of Act I illustrates what Pizzetti’s opera offers: Beckett’s soul-searching and his final surrender to God’s will can be heard as a dramatic aria, sung in a powerful bass voice; the choir of Canterbury women warn the Archbishop, singing at the top of their voices, or in whispers and glissandos (two of them, prima and secunda corifea, soprano and mezzosoprano, singularize the choral lament); the polyphony of the tempters (two basses, a baritone and a tenor who also play the knights in Act II) contribute to the growing tension; finally, a full orchestra brings the first half of the opera to a climactic close, echoing the protagonist’s leitmotif.
A review of the Liceu production of Assassinio nella Cattedrale cautioned those accustomed to nineteenth-century bel canto: they would find Pizzetti’s opera challenging. He was, after all, a Modernist, a contemporary of Stravinsky or Bartók; curiously, he became Olga Rudge’s mentor and friend in Rome. Despite its high reputation, the opera adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral has seldom been programmed (Pizzetti’s fascist sympathies have not helped). A recent production, filmed at the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari and with Ruggero Raimondi as the Arcivescovo Tommaso di Canterbury, can be viewed here.