There are those operas you just don’t know what to do with. You find them beautiful, divinely beautiful even, and you are moved to the depths of your soul. And that without understanding even a single word. Apparently the composer knows how to hit a sensitive chord, because as you listen you keep hoping that the heavenly music will never stop.
Heavenly is perhaps indeed the best word with which to describe Cecilia by Licinio Refice (1883 – 1954), an opera that most resembles a mystery play.
I am not insensitive to the miraculous, I grew up as a Jewish girl in a strongly Catholic Poland. But even as a child I was already aware that all those miracles were unattainable to me and therefore I found them extremely exciting and attractive.
We know Saint Cecilia as the patron saint of music and church music, which, according to many hagiographers, is based on a misunderstanding. What we know of her comes mainly from the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Voragine, a reference book on the lives of saints, written in the thirteenth century. That book was the starting point for Refice’s opera. Refice, who was not only a composer and a conductor, but also a priest!
The legend (and the libretto) in short: the stunningly beautiful Cecilia went to martyrdom as a virgin, but not before she had persuaded her husband Vergilio (whom she never de facto made her husband) and his brother Tiburzio to come to the true faith. Both gentlemen share the same fate as Cecilia (beheading), with Cecilia being tortured first, which she endures in a miraculous way.
The premiere in Rome in 1934 was an unprecedented success and the opera was performed more than a thousand times until the rational took over from the mysterious. Cecilia’s musical language is blatantly veristic, with sentiment increased to exeptional heights. You recognize fragments from Butterfly, but the rousing chords and the scents of roses and lilies, as captured in notes, remind me most of Zandonai and his Francesca da Rimini. One also tastes the atmosphere of Byzantium, that of La Fiamma of Respighi. I love it very much and I can completely lose myself in this music.
Until recently I only knew the opera from two shortened recordings, one with Renata Scotto and one with Renata Tebaldi, and from two arias sung by Claudia Muzzio.
Renata Scottio sings ‘Per amore di Gesù’:
The performance, recorded live in the Cathedral of Monte Carlo in 2013, is, as far as I know, the first complete commercial recording of the work and I am sorry to say that the performance is no more than satisfactory.
Denia Mazzolla Gavazzeni
Denia Mazzolla Gavazzeni has for years been the greatest advocate of obscure and little-known veristic operas and for that alone she deserves the greatest praise. She has never been the best opera singer of the world; there was always a frayed edge to her voice and her high notes could sound unpleasantly metallic. But I could (and can!) forgive her these flaws. She was always able to strongly identify with her roles and her performances could be scorching at times. But now that her voice has lost its freshness, her Cecilia cannot convince me of her unearthly beauty. To produce the heavenly sounds he composed for Cecilia, Refice needed someone to sing with ‘God in the throat’. And that is lacking here.
Giuseppe Veneziano is a decent Valeriano, Corrado Cappitta is convincing in the double roles of Tiburzio and Amachio and Serena Pasquini sounds angelic enough for the “L’annunzio” sung by God’s Angel. Everyone really is trying their best, it is just not good enough for a top performance, which may also be due to the very prosaic and down to earth direction of Marco Fracassi.
Below: Claudia Muzio in two scenes from Cecilia: the prologue ‘Per amor di Gesu’, recorded in 1934, and the death scene, ‘Grazie, sorelle’, from 1935:
The fact that Refice has not yet been completely forgotten is due to ‘Ombra di Nube’ (Shadow of the clouds) a song that is still being sung and recorded, a.o. by Jonas Kaufmann:
And here again is Claudia Muzzio, for whom Refice originally composed the song. Now you can hear what Refice meant by ‘God in the throat’, this singer can and does give a tangible feeling to his deep faith and she is also able to make you believe that the ‘dark clouds will disappear naturally, making life beautiful again’.