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Respighi Resurrected: 'Marie Victoire'

The most striking works by great composers are often mirrored in the vivid personalities of the composers themselves. But not always — as Ottorino Respighi, who wrote the striking opera Marie Victoire, proved again and again.

Richard Wagner wrote sprawling operas and music dramas on a scale never seen or heard before, and had an outsized ego to match. Ludwig van Beethoven's brash and revolutionary symphonies were matched by his frequent disregard for polite society and defiance of traditional authorities.

Still, for every Wagner and Beethoven, there was someone like Respighi, considered by many to be the most successful Italian composer since Puccini. Respighi himself has been described as a simple, even childish man — someone who eagerly observed the world, but didn't necessarily contemplate much on what he saw.

Yet his most famous works — including the bombastic orchestral scores "The Pines of Rome" and "The Fountains of Rome" — sound like the enthusiastic outbursts of a wildly-extroverted, musical travel guide, hawking uniquely riveting insights on the world he's describing.

If Respighi at his best was at all childish, he was like a kid with a great imagination and a blank coloring book, who saw the orchestra as a jumbo box of crayons. The musical outlines of his works may at times seem simple, yet he continuously found the perfect instrumental combinations to fill them with an explosion of orchestral color.

A Drama Resurrected

Respighi's opera Marie Victoire is as kaleidoscopic as any of his great orchestral scores. An epic, romantic drama set against the frantic backdrop of the French Revolution, it was scheduled for a premiere in Rome, in 1915. But that opening never took place. No one seems to know exactly why the opera was shelved — but politics likely played a key role.

The opera was completed at about the same time World War One broke out. Italy was officially neutral, and authorities may have seen the opera's portrayals of revolutionary mobs and political assassinations as unnecessarily, and unwisely, provocative. Then, in a move that may have reflected the composer's mild personality, he seemed to abandon his opera altogether. It waited nearly 90 years for its eventual premiere, in Rome, in 2004.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Respighi's Marie Victoire from the German Opera in Berlin. The exciting young American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart sings the role of Marie, with baritone Markus Bruck and tenor German Villar as Maurice and Cloviere, the two men who love her.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.