Ildebrando Pizzetti
1880 - 1968
Tragedia musicale in two acts and one intermezzo
Libretto by Ildebrando Pizzetti after the play Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
English version: Geoffrey Dunn
First performed March 1st 1958, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Sung in English with German surtitles
Duration c. 1 1/2 hrs., no interval

About the Piece

On the 29th of December 1170 Thomas Becket, made Archbishop of Canterbury after his return from exile in France, and one time Lord ...
On the 29th of December 1170 Thomas Becket, made Archbishop of Canterbury after his return from exile in France, and one time Lord Chancellor of King Henry II, was murdered in his cathedral by four noblemen in the service of the king. This bloody deed triggered powerful political and religious consequences and led to a cult of veneration for the murdered religious crusader, who was soon to be canonized. Historians still argue about whether it really was the king who ordered his death but it is a fact that Henry paid public penance at the martyr’s grave in 1174. In T. S. Eliot’s dramatic masterpiece, written in 1935, modelled, to the smallest detail, on information about life in the middle-ages but crafted in modern verse, ends with the poeple singing about an age of fear and desperation: »We confess that the sins of the world come down on the head of our king, the blood of a martyr, the death of a saint.«. Eliot, an Anglo-Catholic, diagnosed in his mystery play, which takes place at a time when a totalitarian system was coming into being, the rhetorical demagoguery of power politics and the greed and godlessness of an epoch. His Becket is its antithesis: »a tool of God who longs for nothing for himself, let alone martyrdom.« Ildebrando Pizzetti, whose aesthetic marked a new entity of drama and lyric which went against Italian verismo still prevalent at the time, showed his play to Eliot, who was doing the same for literature, in 1956. Their mutual reverence for the Gregorian past is obvious – especially in the great choral passages. Pizzetti’s lyric, arioso style, influenced by the monody of Italian operatic schools in the 17th century, is passionately and powerfully expressive. This opera is about the martyr Thomas Beckett, former Lord Chancellor of England and trusted friend and advisor to Henry II. After he was named Archbishop of Canterbury he came into violent conflict with his king about the independence of the church, which culminated in his murder on 29th December 1170. »What does it mean to live?« This question, central to the drama, was answered by Pizzetti as follows: »to strive for a nonmaterial state of being. To use will, and strength, for others, for no other reason than a voluntary commitment to a noble cause.« It is the answer of a man who sympathised with a fachist regime. T.S. Eliot, who wrote Murder in the Cathedral (1935), upon which Pizzetti based his opera, searching for new artistic expression, always kept traditional dramatic forms in his mind's eye. Scenes reminiscent of Greek tragedy, mystery plays and broken illusions à la Brecht are played out alongside music that sometimes almost resembles gregorian chant. Keith Warner also uses supertemporality in his production, with various historical allusions taking place in a cramped air-raid shelter – in an »skewed lift shaft of eternity«.


Canterbury, England. The women of Canterbury are waiting for the return of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Bitter conflicts destroyed t ...
Canterbury, England. The women of Canterbury are waiting for the return of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Bitter conflicts destroyed the once friendly relationship between King Henry II and his former Lord Chancellor, Thomas Becket, which led to his spending seven years in exile in France. During that time the faithful have been longing for his reinstatement as Archbishop but they fear the King’s anger against him. A messenger, hurrying on ahead, announces that Becket is on his way and gives a clear answer to the priests’ question about whether there is a chance of peace between church and crown. Thomas’ arrival puts an end to a battle of words between the women and priests. But the words of greeting spoken by the Archbishop, who anticipates his death, are also incomprehensible to them.
Four tempters appear to Thomas in a vision to put him to the test. The first three attempt to seduce him with worldly pleasures, political power and persuade him to use his spiritual task for worldly ends. They all recall his pride and ambition. Thomas rejects them. The fourth tempts him with the glory of martyrdom, his secret wish for eternal glory. Thomas wrestles with these and triumphs over his internal struggle, ridding himself of his personal doubts.
At mass on Christmas morning he preaches that he rejects all worldly desires, entrusting himself entirely now to the will of God. In doing so he becomes aware now of man's demands on him. And now he needs to wrestle with the external world.
Four knights, who say have been sent by the King, appear and demand to see the Archbishop. When Thomas appears they accuse him of having betrayed the King. Thomas rejects their accusation, saying that he serves no other than God alone. While the knights withdraw to arm themselves and pump themselves up with drink, the priests urge Thomas to celebrate vespers, and try to bolt the doors to the cathedral. The women grow almost frantic as Thomas finds the centre of his faith in simplicity. He orders the Priests to open the doors because God’s church must always remain open, even to the enemy. The knights find their way back in and kill the Archbishop with their swords. The Knights explain, in political jargon that it was Thomas’ stubborn pride that led to his return and death: a kind of suicide.
A congregation begin singing a Gloria for the new martyr.

Saturday 18.04.2015

Further performances:
26.04.2015  | 08.05.2015  |
14.05.2015  | 25.05.2015


Karsten Januschke
Keith Warner
Revival rehearsed by
Hans Walter Richter
Stage Designer
Tilo Steffens
Costume Designer
Julia Müer
Liighting Designer
Olaf Winter
Norbert Abels
Chorus Master
Tilman Michael
Children's Chorus Master
Markus Ehmann

Archbishop Tommaso / Thomas Becket
Sir John Tomlinson
Ein Herold
Michael McCown
Hans-Jürgen Lazar
Dietrich Volle
Vuyani Mlinde
1st Tempter / Knight
Beau Gibson
2nd Tempter / Knight
Simon Bailey
3rd Tempter / Knight
Sebastian Geyer
4th Tempter / Knight
Alfred Reiter
Britta Stallmeister
Jenny Carlstedt

Oper Frankfurt's Orchestra and Chorus

Copyright © 2013 Oper Frankfurt