Wow, what a weekend! Women…enamoured of a seminarist (Pepita), lady kills satyr (Tosca), somnambulist almost falls into a mill (Amina). Albéniz, Puccini, Bellini. Teatro Argentino (La Plata), Teatro Avenida (Juventus Lyrica, Autonomous City of Buenos Aires), Teatro Roma (Avellaneda). For reasons of space I leave both"Tosca" and "La Sonnambula" for a future occasion.
The American premiere of "Pepita Jiménez" by Isaac Albéniz takes pride of place. In fact, it is the world premiere in English of the second version, quite a privilege for a provincial Argentine city. For, strange as it is, indeed the libretto was written in English by Baron Francis Money-Coutts, the wealthy banker that was the composer´s sponsor, provided he wrote the libretto. Believe it or not, Albéniz wrote under the same conditions "Henry Clifford" (an episode of the Wars of the Roses) and "Merlin", first part of an Arthurian trilogy he didn´t live to finish. In the case of "Pepita Jiménez", the subject was suggested to the librettist by the composer, for it is a controversial novel written in 1874 by Juan Valera. There was a first version in one act premiered at Barcelona on January 5, 1896, but in Italian, and a second version in two acts premiered in Prague in German (!) on June 22, 1897.
Although the opera was offered in other cities, it was always in translations to other languages (except Spanish!) until Pablo Sorozábal produced in 1964 a polemic arrangement of the piece in Spanish, poorly done and with many changes. Now we finally have the original of the two-act version in the original English as revised recently by Borja Mariño por Editorial Tritó (tritone in catalan). The strangeness of the English language applied to a very Spanish love story, "andaluza" to boot, didn´t wear off as the evening progressed, but it must be said that the composer managed to write recitatives, ariosos and arias where the imbrication of the words and the music is perfect. Not easy, indeed, to imagine a Spanish version, as the accents of each language are so different; and certainly the music is the main thing and it must be respected, for there´s a good deal to be savored in its rather short 95 minutes: two exquisite interludes and fine arias for Pepita and Luis.
Alas, the relationship of a seminarist with a rich twenty-year-old widow, an audacious subject in 1874, proved an object of desire to the Great Distorter, producer Calixto Bieito, famous for his outrageous opera and theatre presentations. He follows the golden rule of Administrator Gérard Mortier: opera must provoke always. This is Bieito´s first opera production in Argentina (last year he did a less agressive "La vida es sueño" by Calderón de la Barca at the Teatro San Martín in BA). In "Pepita Jiménez" we had a curious duality: a capricious but quite beautiful array of wardrobes imagined by Rebecca Ringst in four rows ( a bit like La Fura dels Baus´ "Oedipe" and Ana D´Anna´s "Don Giovanni") combined with increasingly blasphemous and perverse ideas from Bieito, culminating in the full, harshly lighted (by Carlos Márquez) nude of the Virgin, paralleling the increasing hysteria of Pepita and against the grain of the music. Just one more example of Bieito´s obsessiveness: the transformation of well-meaning peasants into a bunch of Franquista-period prisoners. The costumes by Ingo Krügler followed Bieito´s conception. Another sign of the times: what is the need of what they now call a "dramaturgist"? (Bettina Auer).
Even Marcelo Lombardero, the Theatre´s Artistic Director, found it necessary to add a leaflet to the hand programme stating that "this piece contains scenes that may hurt and/or affect the audience´s sensibility. The access of people under-16 will only be permitted if consented by a responsible adult". I would correct one thing: the culprit is Bieito, not the piece. This production will now go to Madrid.
Nicola Beller Carbone and Enrique Ferrer made their debut at the Argentino two years ago in Zandonai´s "Francesca da Rimini"; I liked them better then, especially the tenor, who now sounded to me quite raw. The soprano certainly tried to give dramatic life to her difficult part, but vocally she was uneven. That also goes for a sort of Celestina, the aged maid Antoñona, transformed by Bieito into a rather young and shapely woman, mezzosoprano Adriana Mastrángelo: she was intense in her acting but some low parts of her role couldn´t be heard. Gustavo Gibert was a firm-voiced, libidinous old man, Luis´ father Don Pedro de Vargas. The Canarian José Antonio García had presence but was rather woolly as the Vicar (for the anticlerical Bieito, a typical Catholic repressor). Good work in minor parts from Sebastián Angulegui, Francisco Bugallo and Juan Pablo Labourdette.
The young conductor Manuel Coves (debut) seemed reasonably well in charge and he knows the style, but at times he made it difficult for the singers to project their voices with an overloud orchestral texture. There´s only one big choral scene (most of the opera is made up of duets or trios), well sung by the Argentino Choir (Miguel Fabián Martínez) and by the fresh-voiced Children´s Choir (Mónica Dagorret).
Unfortunately the mediatic emphasis was on Bieito, not on Albéniz as it should. But opera theatre directors all over the world seem to relish scandal and the public is lame. There is a bitter crisis of values.
For Buenos Aires Herald