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August 30, 2014
Friday, June 20, 2014

An Argentine opera in English and Latin

A scene from Oscar Strasnoy’s Réquiem.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald
Though very far indeed from greatness, Oscar Strasnoy’s Réquiem has its good points

The presence of an Argentine opera in the Colón’s season has always been a moot point. On the one hand, it is a natural thing for our main opera theatre to provide an opportunity to our composers. There are two options: the revival of an opera already premièred in earlier seasons; or the première of a new opera. To be frank, few Argentine operas have proved viable and worthy of a revival, but there are some. A new one is of course a risk, for it may be a total flop, but art can’t exist without this sort of challenge.

On the other hand, it is one thing to offer an Argentine opera when you could see 18 operas, as in the happy Sixties, and quite another if you have a meagre offer of seven or eight, as in these rather miserable times. With absolute foreign masterpieces awaiting their revival or première for decades and decades, each choice matters.

In principle, the Colón should be able to either commission an opera if the authorities consider that the composer is of reliable level, or establish a competition with an international jury to find an opera worthy of being premièred. Pedro Pablo García Caffi, the current director, chose the first alternative. He commissioned Oscar Strasnoy to create an opera that would have its world première at the Colón this year.

Frankly my earlier experience with a Strasnoy opera was a disaster. Cachafaz, based on a text by Copi, was completely and utterly revulsive in its unrelieved procacity, and the few interesting musical moments, mostly of the parodic sort, didn’t compensate. That is why the relatively much better Réquiem was a relief; very far indeed from greatness but it does have its good points.

Strasnoy, born in Buenos Aires in 1970 and resident in Germany after studying in Paris and Frankfurt, is having good success in Europe. I have my doubts about his aesthetics and apparent fixation on the seamier aspects of sex, but Réquiem, the strange name of his new opera, shows without a doubt his professionalism, especially in matters of timbre (he studied with Gérard Grisey, the creator of the “musique spectrale,” based on the spectrum of sound colours).

Why not Réquiem for a nun, as it is based on that novel by William Faulkner? In fact, in early publicity it was announced with that title prior to being reduced to just one word. But really there is no nun in the novelist’s opus; the only opaque reference comes in a line of the libretto by Matthew Jocelyn: (I paraphrase) “Silent as a nun bride in a Spanish convent. Secure in the midst of sin and pleasure” (a reference to the Memphis brothel where the protagonist Temple Drake had been secluded for eight years).

I haven’t read Faulkner’s massive 1950 novel (more than 400 pages); it is a sign of his obsession with the main character that Temple Drake is also at the centre of Sanctuary, written 19 years before, in which he tells her years at the brothel. Says Collier’s Encyclopedia in a contradictory way: “violated by an inhuman, impotent murderer known as Popeye, she finds sanctuary of a sort in a brothel.” I am told by connoisseurs of Faulkner’s complex style that the Jocelyn libretto accurately tells the main lines of the sequel.

I have one main objection, and it is rather to Faulkner: I find no rationale to Nancy’s murder of Temple’s child as a means to save her marriage and avoid her flight with her lover Pete; nor do I understand her reaction when sentenced to be hanged: “Thank you, Lord;” and at the very end, she says “I believe.” In what? Apparently in that the Lord will condone her act.

I strongly doubt that Strasnoy’s interspersing of fragments of the Réquiem Mass by an oratorial choir is a good idea; it rather stresses the ambiguity. If the point is that all actions will be judged in Heaven, it seems too pat; musically some fragments are good, others fail.

Vocally Temple has some attractive moments; the others are reduced to recitative or spoken words, though there are a few minutes of concerted work. The main attraction is the subtlety and variety of the orchestra, with non-habitual instruments generally associated with pop music but intelligently used. But there’s also a lot of rhythmic redundancy, whilst lyric expansion appears very intermittently. Anyway, I suppose Réquiem has the originality of being written in English (which is logical) and Latin (which isn’t).

The production was clean and well done by Jocelyn himself, with clever stage design by Anick La Bissonière and Eric Oliver Lacroix, costumes by Aníbal Lápiz with a sense of time and place, and lighting by Enrique Bordolini that created a psychological ambience.

Young Argentine conductor Christian Baldini gave a good account of himself and was well seconded by a responsive Orchestra. The difficult choral parts were reasonably solved by director Miguel Martínez.

Mezzosoprano Jennifer Holloway made a remarkable début as Temple, with solid vocal power and interesting acting. Siphiwe McKenzie (debut) was shrill as Nancy. The character baritone James Johnson gave dramatic emphasis to Gavin the lawyer, whilst light baritone Brett Polegato (début) dealt well with the unthankful part of the husband.

Cristian De Marco was a sonorous governor (why the hiccups in Strasnoy’s writing?), Santiago Burgi a dynamic Pete, Mario De Salvo as the judge was placed too far back for adequate hearing, and Damián Ramírez was a countertenor jailer! Strange indeed.

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