Culture (by P. Isotta). Music is in mourning, goodbye to maestro Elio Boncompagni


Published 14 November 2019 by Paolo Isotta *


Still in the last days of September we celebrated on my terrace the great success that had been received in Sofia on the 20th Boris Godunov of Musorgsky in the form of a concert in memory of Nicolai Ghiaurov; and they had invited him to return to direct an Opera. He thought of the Don Carlos of Verdi in the authentic edition in five acts and in French. On the plane (the usual dirty air conditioning filters) he had contracted fatal pneumonia. Strong as it was, it lasted too long. But the 9 did not make it. It was, and for me it is, Elio Boncompagni, one of the most distinguished living conductors. He turned 86 in May.

He was not one of those "of the old school" whom we so often rightly regret, despite having been Tullio Serafin's assistant, one of the cornerstones of this trend. From him and from others (Santini, de Fabritiis, Gardelli), he had learned the tricks and "traditions" (those to be respected and those to be rejected) of this "old school". But he was a very modern director. For the rigorous conception of respect for the text and for an idea of ​​the relationships of time: especially in the symphonic repertoire, between the various parts of a movement of a Symphony and between all the movements between them. Also in this he taught me a lot.

In remembering it I start right from the Don Carlos, one of his flags. The last time he directed him to Zagreb two years ago. Certainly it is the most complex opera by Verdi, perhaps his masterpiece: the one that caused him more fatigue and more desperation. The great composer has never been able to listen to it whole in life. Today there are four versions. Until 1974, two were known: one in four acts and one in five. Both in Italian: authentication is in French. That in four acts comes from, I repeat, the desperation of the Master, who, seeing the Opera continually amputated, decided to cut himself off, and eliminated the entire first act. It is the current version, and the conductors that the adopter should be ashamed of. Then, almost twenty years after the first performance (1867), the author partially restored the first act. Only in 1973 the American musicologist Andrew Porter found in the cellars of the Opera the missing parts of the first act, cut to the "first" because the last omnibus was leaving at midnight and the subscribers had to retire. This version, now published by Ursula Gunther, was first directed by Boncompagni in 1974 at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, of which he was artistic director. He was also at the San Carlo in Naples, in Stockholm, in Vienna (Volksoper and then Staatsoper), and in Aachen, where he founded the symphony orchestra. From there he returned to his native Florence, to assist his nearly centenary mother, a dry and lucid elementary teacher, of few words, whom I remember with emotion.

I repeat, on the podium he looked like a boy: due to the effective sobriety of the gesture, the tirelessness, the boundless knowledge of the lyrical and symphonic repertoire. But in our country he found a kind of wall. Despite having directed memorable performances, in Milan, in Catania, in Cagliari, in Naples, the superintendents saw him mostly as an enemy. Some considered a mission entrusted to him by God to crush the career of "that old fool", as one of them told me. In Liege he was supposed to direct one of his discoveries in 2021, the Italian and modified edition of Donizetti's last masterpieces, the Don Sebastiano. He interpreted it all over the world, never in Italy. In Liege, he had an invitation from another exile, superintendent Stefano Mazzonis. I am convinced that if he did not arrive at that date, it is also due to the heartbreak caused by his hatred at home, which anguished him, which he could not understand and which weakened him. Boys who direct by ear instead of a Master? Life is this. Let us remember him in the marvelous executions, in the sympathy, in the goodness, even in the naive trust towards life that, despite everything, he had not lost.

* From The Daily Fact of 11.13.2019

By Paolo Isotta *

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