Maria Egiziaca, Opera by O. Respighi
The story of St Mary of Egypt is touching and inspiring, and so is the opera Ottorino Respighi dedicated to the life of the Medieval saint. Maria egiziaca pays tribute to the spiritual transformation of a fallen woman and does so in an inimitably authentic fashion. In just one act, separated into three parts, Respighi’s opera builds up a unique atmosphere and relates the wondrous life of Mary in accessible and touching ways. The premiere was on 10 August 1932 at the Teatro Goldoni in Venice. This season, the choir and orchestra of Gran Teatro La Fenice bring the music and the storytelling of Maria egiziaca to the stage of Teatro Malibran in Venice.
St Mary of Egypt’s life was first written up in the Italian vernacular by Domenico Cavalca in his translation of the ‘Vitae Patrum’. Librettist Claudio Guastalla used this text as his main source and made sure to preserve the story’s ‘ancient’ feel by keeping the language old-fashioned. The opera’s plotline follows Mary’s path from a prostitute to a born-again Christian. Deep in her life of sin, she suddenly becomes fixated on the idea of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The trip is indeed transformational: Mary renounces her old ways and seeks redemption in a life of prayer and devotion away from people. At the end of her long and pious life, St Zosimas chances upon her on her desert deathbed and accompanies her in her transition. The final scene shows him preparing Mary’s final resting place with the help of a lion.
In line with the Medieval story and the archaic language, Respighi produced a score that is brimful of references to older musical styles. The keen listener will pick out Gregorian chants in most of the chorus parts. Lovers of Renaissance music will surely be happy to hear the soundscapes of Maria egiziaca, as will fans of the early operas by Claudio Monteverdi. At Teatro Malibran, a unique one-act wonder is taking audiences on a trip through time.