jueves, abril 10, 2008

Occident and Orient, an operatic counterpoint

A rare circumstance occurred recently. It has been decades since our city was able to appreciate Chinese traditional opera, utterly different from our occidental brand. The visit of the Beijing Opera (we used to call it Peking) at the ND Ateneo prompts some musings and conclusions.

It was simply billed as "Opera de Pekín" in the poor hand programme, which gave no detail of the pieces to be seen or the singers and players; not even the artistic leaders of the company were listed. As I remember, Buenos Aires has seen much bigger groups than this chamber outfit (seven singer-performers, 6 players) and I strongly suspect that currently Beijing has grander shows to offer. My recollections of the Legend of the Monkey King, e.g., seen here several decades ago, are of a vast array of singers, acrobats and dancers.

What we saw was four short pieces: the first was a comedy sketch between a lady and a gentleman marked by the subtlety of pantomimic gesture; on the second another lady cajoles an old boatman into ferrying her over the river to meet her lover (again pantomime holds a large place); the third, rather austere, was made up of "arias" (so said the supertitles) of a warrior General; the final offering was the actions leading to the suicide of a General's concubine; the strange reasoning being that her death, liberating the man from his amorous desires, left him free to wage war. The General wore such a grotesque mask and emitted such growling sounds that to Occidental sensibilities it smacked more of parody than of tragedy.

And there lies the rub: the codes are so different that I can only give an impression, certainly not an informed criticism. So, there are cultural differences that are hard to bridge. Vocal production sounds nasal and harsh to us, and the constant twang of a small gong seems numbing and monotonous. Other aspects communicate better: the beauty of the clothes, the skill and charm of the gestures, the weight of immutable tradition giving us the age-old spirit of a great people. And the curiosity of hearing the timbres of the Chinese varieties of fiddles, mandolins, flutes, oboes and drums. The music sounds inexorable and seems based on repetition of patterns with pentatonic melody.

A few days later I was on familiar ground with the new production of Rossini's "L'italiana in Algeri" opening the season of Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) at the Avenida. Although I feel that a young company shouldn't repeat titles (this opera was seen on 2003) and there's plenty of little-known Rossini to choose from, the evening was quite pleasant and I went out with a smile. Pablo Maritano, a fresh new talent, produced. In one essential aspect I differ: even farce needs to be believable in a historic context, and the plain fact is that the updating to the 1920s doesn't work, for by then the Ottoman Empire didn't exist; it would have sufficed to give us a Belle Epoque ambience (the 1890s) to make matters much more logical. And Maritano at least once changes the libretto wholesale. Says the hand programme, referring to Isabella and Taddeo: "the ship in which they traveled wrecked in the Algerian coast"; not here, where a special stage design gives us a pleasure boat of the 1920s being boarded by pirates abducting the Italians. But...it works. Maritano has genuine comedy ideas and the situations he concocts are funny and don't go against the grain of the characters. E.g., the eunuchs' Turkish bath. I would only object that he makes the Bey's wife too ridiculous and the Bey not enough.

Maritano is abetted by a splendid stage designer, Andrea Mercado, who has a sure aesthetic sense and a feeling for colour. I'm not so sure about the costumes designed by Sofía Di Nunzio, although she of course follows Maritano's instructions about the time of the action; I prefer a Mustafa in Oriental clothes and a less strident Isabella.

There was a major blemish in the cast: Lindoro needs a beautiful voice with a very sure high extension, great agility and charm; Jaime Caicompai lacks such features and he is also very unprepossessing as a stage figure. An occasional felicity of phrasing didn't compensate. The other Chilean in the cast was another matter: Evelyn Ramírez has a round even mezzosoprano voice with a full register, and as she sings, "here nonchalance is needed"; she provides it. But there was a greater star on stage: Hernán Iturralde was simply brilliant as Mustafa, worth the price of a seat all by himself: ideal acting and skilful handling of Rossinian roulades, perfect diction and timing, and a powerful voice. Fernando Santiago as Taddeo plays the fool convincingly and his vocal means are quite adequate. Jimena Semiz made her local debut (she hails from Mendoza) as Elvira, and if you accept the sad figure Maritano wants her to be, she did quite well (her high notes are firm and ride over the orchestra in the big concerted Finale to Act I). Gustavo Feulien sang fluently Haly's aria, and Florencia Machado was satisfactory as Zulma.

Guillermo Brizzio conducted with care and style a rather good orchestra; there were blemishes but also some well-pointed phrasing. The Male Choir under Juan Casasbellas entered wholeheartedly in the spirit of fun . They and all concerned enjoyed themselves and so did the audience.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

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