Quanto costa una preghiera? (What price a prayer?)

Well, I have to hand it to him. A real Italian pro at work. He slipped in, waited, selected his victim, checked that nobody was looking, then struck. Even though the closed circuit cameras caught sight of him as he took the bag, they didn’t catch his face as he disappeared through the back exit. A perfect crime.

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto

An all-too-familiar story in Rome, of course, the sort of thing the guidebooks warn you about (the specialità romana being Vespa-riding thieves seizing handbags at intersections). Unfortunately for me, I was the unsuspecting victim, and in a surprising location – the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli located a stone’s throw from Opera Roma. I had strolled in having a few minutes to spare before catching my bus out to the airport, intrigued by its architectural origins as part of the huge Diocletian complex of baths, once the largest building of its type in the Roman world. Once inside, I sat down to pray, ruminating among other things upon the whole complex relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. When I opened my eyes, my baggage only two inches away from me was gone (including my plane ticket and a computer with six years’ worth of files, though thankfully not my passport or credit card). As I remarked to the very helpful parish priest who watched the CCTV video with me to no avail, that was a pretty expensive prayer! But then again… the second before the thief made his getaway I had been thinking about the scourging of Jesus at the hands of Rome, and as I left the church for the bus, I imagined a voice saying: ‘they stripped me of everything, you know…’ So no point in complaining about a few lost electronic gadgets, although I would advise anyone headed for the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (well-known to the local Carabinieri , it turns out) either to pray with their eyes open or else chain themselves to their valuables!

Basilica_santa_maria_degli_angeli_dei_martyt_2011_4It was an inauspicious end to what had nonetheless been a memorable day in the Eternal City. In the morning, I had joined a crowd of some 50,000+ in a pleasantly dry St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’s General Audience, and I have to say that the atmosphere was electric. Somehow I have always found the Piazza when full a more moving sight than St Peter’s Basilica itself (excluding Michelangelo’s Pietà), perhaps because of the collective energy, the sensum fidelium represented by the massed pilgrims from around the whole world. On this occasion what impressed me was the sense of anticipation, the feeling as Pope Francis arrived and began to ride around the square to the delight of the crowd that this was not simply ‘business as usual’, but that something important was actually happening.  It is difficult to identify any one factor behind the buzz in St Peter’s Square: the Pope’s spontaneous manner and proximity to the crowds, the limpidity of his uncomplicated yet profound teaching, his roots in the Global South where the demographic centre of gravity of world Christianity is now located, the heartfelt longing of so many ordinary believers for the Church’s return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Age… all these contributed to creating an unforgettable event. The closest parallel in my own experience is probably the annual European Meetings of the Taizé Community that I attended some two decades ago in the years around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was a similar feeling among the crowds of being caught up in ‘history in the making’, that we were participating in something radically new , the Divine novum which cannot simply be extrapolated out of the past.

St Peter's square RomeThe same can be said of the ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione (formerly home to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s symphony concerts) the evening before, where Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan certainly lived up to her billing  as a major talent. Although I tend to be wary of published comparisons of any artist with Maria Callas or any of the legends of the past, I have to say that in my years spent coaching lyric artists at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and elsewhere, I have rarely heard someone as young as Ms Kasyan capable of such vocal power (even if at times the usual problems of balance between even the most accomplished soloist and an onstage orchestra performing music written for an opera pit were in evidence). Her performance of arias by Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, delivered in a refreshingly unaffected and unpretentious manner, left no doubt as to her formidable expressive capabilities.

A no less remarkable feature of the concert, however, was the music and presence of Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, highlights being Svetlana Kasyan’s rendition of the plaintive Rachel’s Lament from his Christmas Oratorio (which also provided the evening’s encore) and a sombre, brooding song-cycle to texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. It might be argued that the setting – a hall whose heavy, uninspiring stage décor reminded me somewhat of the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Radio France – was not optimal for the more meditative moments of Metropolitan Hilarion’s music, and Italian orchestras such as the Rome Sinfonietta perhaps need an extra ounce of gravitas to convey its imposing solemnity. Yet this did nothing to diminish the success of the evening, and it would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of an event in which the bishop-composer found himself seated between Catholic Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontifical Council of Culture) and Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity), an intriguing additional ecumenical factor being the saturation of references in Bishop Hilarion’s works to the greatest ever Protestant musician – J.S. Bach. Here too, this was not merely a concert but a happening oriented not so much to the past as to a future of unprecedented conversations between Christian traditions that lies tantalizingly open. That it should have taken place in an auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione (the ‘Way of Reconciliation’) is surely more than a coincidence.

In the back of my mind as I walking back after the concert across an empty, moonlit St Peter’s Square and now as I write these words was the spiritual vision of one of the greatest modern pioneers of Christian Unity, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Last December the ‘Pilgrimage of Trust’ organized by the Taizé Community filled the square in order to pray with Benedict XVI, from whose hand this Swiss Reformed pastor personally received communion in the last months of his life. Frère Roger’s overwhelming conviction was that the way forward for the Church lay in re-unifying the riches of the three Christian traditions within the one undivided Body of Christ- the Eucharist, devotion to the Mother of God and the role of the Pope as a visible universal pastor in Catholicism, the liturgical depth and connection with ancient Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy,  the passion for the Scriptures of his own Protestant upbringing.  If there was much excitement around the time of the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an observer) that this vision might one day be realized, it has to be said that in recent decades it has seemed to have suffered a certain loss of impetus. But on the strength of my few days’ observation of goings-on in Rome, the time is ripe for its resurgence.

What price a prayer? Yes, my brief to the Italian capital turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, thanks largely to my brush with the professional services of the Roman branch of Organized Crime Inc. But a prayer for unity, in echo of the words of Jesus himself in John 17, is worth every last Euro. And if the thief happens to be reading this blog, in the bag you stole is a CD of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion given to me by the composer himself. Go ahead and take a listen – you might just learn something.

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You can read Svetlana Kasyan’s own reflections on her meeting with Pope Francis in the latest instalment of the ‘Moynihan Letters’ here

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

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Opera seria in Rome?

Much virtual ink has been spilled over what must be one of the most-dissected interviews of recent months, the three-part conversation of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. published in La Civiltà Cattolica and translated in outlets such as America Magazine at the end of September. It is regrettable, if sadly understandable given social media’s unfortunate tendency to diminish everything to soundbites that this wide-ranging 12,000-word dialogue has largely been reduced to a few albeit compelling sentences about questions of sexual ethics and the need for a re-appraisal of the role of women in the Church. The conversations with Spadaro are remarkable for their profusion of ideas, even if they surface at a rate such as to leave the reader a little breathless. Moreover, the Pope’s strikingly original turns of phrase are accompanied by a wealth of references pointing not only to the anchoring of his profound spirituality in a breadth of tradition but also – and this has perhaps come as a surprise to some – his formidable intellect and cultural awareness.Pope Francis soccer pennant

For example, if it has for some months now been public knowledge that the Pope, very much a man of the Argentinian people, is a long-time supporter of the San Lorenzo soccer team in Buenos Aires and a lover of tango, it is perhaps not so widely acknowledged that he is also no less a connoisseur of classical music than his predecessor:

Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.

It ought to be unsurprising that opera holds a special place in the Pope’s musical affections given his Italian parentage (in his preference for Furtwängler’s La Scala recordings the reader may detect a note of patriotism which is prepared to indulge the approximations of the Milanese pit orchestra!). What is striking, however, is the way in which he is unafraid to use examples from the secular operatic repertoire to make spiritual points, as if to emphasize that the whole of human culture is in some way a possible locus of the sacred (or at least not sealed off from it). Jorge Maria Bergoglio is an opera buff who hears in Puccini’s Turandot much more than Nessun dorma, bringing the famous (and electrifying) scena degli enigmi exchange between Turandot and Calaf into conversation with the New Testament’s view of hope:

[Spadaro]I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?”

[Pope Francis]“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests.

[Spadaro]At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!” These are verses that reveal the desire for a hope. Yet here that hope is an iridescent ghost that disappears with the dawn.

“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

Poster for Puccini's 'Turandot', 1926

Poster for Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, 1926

Wagner, too, is the source for a provocative philosophical illustration about genius and delusion later in the course of the interview, from which it becomes plain that the Pope’s desire to remain close to the poor and his deep respect for popular piety in no way imply that he is anti-intellectual:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”

All these operatic references bring me to the occasion for writing this present post. I am currently in Rome, where tomorrow evening the young Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan will be giving a recital of arias with orchestra in the Auditorium Conciliazione, a ‘concert for peace’ in solidarity with victims of war throughout the world and in honour of Pope Francis (with whom, the soprano’s Facebook page proudly informs us, she had dinner last night). This concert is co-sponsored by the Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Christian – particular Catholic/Orthodox – unity established by Dr Robert Moynihan, hero of a post on this blog earlier this year, and will feature both Italian repertoire and the music of Russian Orthodox theologian, churchman and composer Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. Barely out of the Moscow Conservatory and Bolshoi Theatre’s Young Singers’ Academy, Georgian-born Svetlana Kasyan has already been making considerable waves in the opera world, and on the strength of this RAI broadcast excerpt of her Elisabetta/Don Carlo duet with the peerless Ramon Vargas, it is not difficult to see why:

This concert comes at an intriguing time for East-West Christian relations, as Robert Moynihan has pointed out repeatedly in his ‘Moynihan Letters’ over the last few months, as well as in his recent biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me. Pope Francis’s unusual awareness of and deep respect for Eastern Christian tradition (in Buenos Aires he had responsibility for the archdiocese’s Eastern Rite Catholics) is no secret, while there are also signs of a new openness to collaboration with Rome on the part both of Constantinople (with Patriarch Bartholomew I breaking new ground in attending Pope Francis’s inauguration) and Moscow, as can be seen from Metropolitan Hilarion’s typically thought-provoking recent address to the World Council of Churches in Korea . To which must be added the intriguing prospect – whatever one may think of its possible motivation – of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Vatican later this month.

In this context, rich with possible ramifications both theological and socio-political, a recital including music by an Eastern Orthodox Archbishop sung by a Russian diva in honour of an opera-loving Pontiff is potentially serious business. Watch this space as we report back.