OP0651. MARIA EGIZIACA (Respighi), recorded c.1989, w.Lamberto Gardelli Cond. Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, Hungarian State Opera Chorus; Veronika Kincses, Janos B. Nagy, Lajos Miller, Maria Zempléi, etc. Hungaroton 31118, w.Elaborate 32pp. Libretto-brochure in Italian & English. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 5991813111821
“The early Christian legend of Maria Egiziaca (Mary of Egypt) has been passed down in various forms and used in various literary works, the first, 6th century, stories being of Levantine origin. Interestingly, Nicolas Benois, who designed the sets for the world premiere of Respighi’s opera in New York, used the Pisa painting as the centrepiece of his design.
Respighi’s initial idea, in 1929, was to write a concert opera based on the legend with a winged altar-piece as the set on the concert stage, and that the singers could step out from behind it in costume. Respighi’s librettist Claudio Guastalla (1880- 1948) saw this idea as a revival of the medieval genre of Sacra Rappresentazione, in which priests and clerks performed the stories of the various feasts, particularly Easter, using histrionic means with a musical accompaniment. The first performance of MARIA EGIZIACA took place in New York’s Carnegie Hall. There were a number of successful performances in Italy and in Venice the work took to the stage for the first time with Benois’ set blown up to stage size. Sadly, MARIA EGIZIACA slowly disappeared from the repertoire after Respighi’s death in 1936.
There are three scenes following the illustrations of the on-stage triptych linked by two interludes. In MARIA EGAZIACA, Respighi seeks the simplicity of the medieval style of the Sacra Rappresentazione. Appropriately, Respighi includes melodies written in the Gregorian spirit. But the music is multi-layered and one can also detect influences of modern composers particularly Richard Strauss.
The highlight of Act II - and the whole work - is Maria’s challenging, marathon aria in which her emotions range from defiant outrage at Pilgrim’s censure to fright and awe on seeing the Angel, and to humble supplication and repentance. The central part of this aria just after Maria sees the Angel, ‘O white falcon, Angel of the Lord, you who grip my heart...’ is deeply moving and top-drawer Respighi.
The second intermezzo continues after the end of Act II without a break in the music. The ‘O Crux. . . ‘ chorus giving way to another graphic orchestral account of the events that follow - i.e. Maria prostrating herself before the Cross, leaving the City and taking Holy Communion in the church by the Jordan in which she is baptised before proceeding into seclusion in the desert. Gardelli wins hands down in communicating Maria’s new piety, the washing away of her sins (subtle allusions again to Strauss) and her heavy, remorseful tread into the wilderness. Act III opens with the Abbott Zozimus (the same Pilgrim we met in Acts I and II) emerging from his cave to see the lion has dug a pit. Zozimus thinks it is his grave. A bent old woman appears with her long hair covering her nakedness. It is Maria. She asks Zozimus to cover her and tells him that the pit is her grave. She asks him to remember her and to give her final absolution. Recognising that her face ‘already mirrors the light of Paradise’ he does so and the opera closes with an ecstatic duet in praise of the Lord in which they are joined by a chorus of Angels and the curtain falls as the doors of the triptych slowly close.”
- Ian Lace, MusicWebInternational