Program Notes: THE SISTERS by Nicolas Flagello

by Walter Simmons



Nicolas Flagello was one of the last composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late-Romanticism. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. (During the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) In 1955 he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori the following year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years. However, during the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, introducing his work to a new generation of listeners. More than forty of his works can now be found on some twelve compact discs on a variety of labels. Among today’s leading performers who have featured Flagello’s music are violin superstars Midori, Elmar Oliveira, and Setsuko Nagata, conductors James DePreist, Semyon Bychkov, David Amos, and John McLaughlin Williams, soprano Susan Gonzalez, and pianists Peter Vinograde, Tatjana Rankovich, and Joshua Pierce. These musicians have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.

The Sisters, composed in 1958, was Flagello’s third opera. A one-act melodrama in two scenes separated by an orchestral interlude, The Sisters is based on an original libretto by Dean Mundy. Set in ‘‘a town off the coast of Massachusetts,’’ the opera depicts the jealousy and hatred that pervade a family of three sisters, two of whom are in love with the same man, and their brutal, controlling father who will not tolerate any disobedience from his daughters. The characters are archetypes  of melodrama: the sweet, innocent sister, the vicious, jealous sister, and the maternal, protective sister; the dashing, virile hero, and the cruel, tyrannically possessive father. Their behavior follows a disastrous course that ends as one of the daughters forces her sister off a cliff to her death.

The musical language of The Sisters veers between warm, ardent lyricism during tender, amorous moments, and more angular, irregular, dissonant passages when the father and the evil daughter are portrayed. The entire work is thoroughly integrated around a few short motifs. There is a poignant trio, a voluptuous love-duet, and several other lovely lyrical moments, as well as some solemn evocations of mood, such as the ‘‘Interludio’’ that separates the two scenes. (This “Interludio,” incidentally, has just been released on a new recording on the Artek label.)

The Sisters was first presented by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater in February, 1961, with the composer conducting and his brother Ezio (then a world-famous operatic bass-baritone) in the role of the father. Reviewing that performance for the New York Herald Tribune, John Gruen described the opera as “first rate,” adding, “Mr. Flagello has the gift of writing gratefully for the voice, and his music has melodic sumptuousness. His orchestral texture is crystal-clear, and he knows how to underline dramatic events.” Tonight’s  production is the opera’s first since the premiere 46 years ago.