A current double bill at the Usina del Arte gave food for thought about new ways to imagine opera during the previous century. A starry ad-hoc group was formed by producer Marcelo Lombardero to present two attractive works that have been long absent from our stages.
The Janácek/Milhaud combination planned by Lombardero for the chamber hall of the Usina was very interesting. And it was helped by the intimate venue of warm acoustics. Janácek´s "The Diary of one who disappeared" ("Zápisnik zmizelého") isn´t quite an opera, but that genre seems a better description for it than a song cycle, although my R.E.R. CD catalogue lists it in the latter category. It´s true that it can be offered without a staging, but I do believe that the piece works even better in a good production.
I was present when it was premièred here as a straight concert in August 28, 1953 by that wonderful institution, the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara, with Sante Rosolén, Ruzena Horáková and pianist Leo Schwarz. And I was bowled over by the revelation: it was my first Janácek. Years later I saw almost all his operas in Prague and here and I have no doubt that he was one of the essential composers of the Twentieth Century.
Decades later I saw a very moving stage presentation with Carlos Bengolea (one of his best appearances) at an unlikely venue, the Museo de Arte Moderno at San Juan Avenue. The date could be as much as twenty years ago, so I deeply welcome this admirable presentation with Pablo Pollitzer at his very best, the voice dramatic, the musicality perfect and the acting of great impact.
By the time Janácek wrote in 1917-19 his song cycle on anonymous folk words his style was fully mature, for he had premièred his marvelous "Jenufa" in 1904. The 22 short fragments tell the story of a young peasant who falls in love with a gypsy girl and "disappears" in the sense that he leaves for ever his village for he can´t face his very traditional family (father, mother, sister). Significantly, after alternate dialogues with the gypsy Zefka and the added musical beauty of a trio of feminine voices, we hear the only piece for solo piano and it portrays the man´s loss of virginity. By the way, we never learn his name.
The writing is typical Janácek: beautiful yearning melodies broken by harsh chords and rhythms and a total blend of text and music following the natural accentuation of the Wallachian dialect (thanks, Igor Herzog, for his advice). Mezzosoprano Florencia Machado sounded full and sensual as Zefka, the three voices were admirably sung by sopranos Ana Sampedro and Rocío Fernández and contralto Sabrina Contestábile, and pianist Carlos Koffman gave relief and exactitude to his intervention (when he took his bow at the end we were seeing a perfect clone of a very pilous Karl Marx!).
The staging was very convincing. A transparent drop separated the peasant from the pianist, Zefka and the other girls, and on it the center was taken up by a road that went straight up surrounded by woods. The movements were spare and meaningful, the gestures were psychologically pregnant.
"The poor mariner" ("Le pauvre matelot") is a succinct opera in three short acts with music by Darius Milhaud and text by Jean Cocteau. It is based on a true story that happened in France: a married mariner goes abroad for fifteen years; his wife remains faithful; when he comes back his physiognomy has changed. He fools her playing the part of a rich friend of her poor husband and tells her that he is alive and will come shortly; she doesn´t recognize him and kills him with a hammer so as to give his richness to her husband... Pretty gruesome and rather unbelievable, but it happened.
In this 1927 opus Cocteau tells the story well and Milhaud´s music, written for four singers and a thirteen-member instrumental ensemble, is typical of his eclectic inspiration with jazzy and French pop inflexions. However, I would have liked a more dramatic music for the final minutes.
In an adequately simple stage design (the wife lives with her father in a mediocre house) Lombardero moves his characters with dramatic logic. A friend of the mariner is the only one who recognizes him after a while; Víctor Torres sang it with his complete professionalism. The father was impeccably acted and sung by Hernán Iturralde, a deep bass-baritone as opposed to Torres´ lyric baritone.
The wife is a psychopathic character and this was evident in Graciela Oddone´s tense acting and singing. I do have my doubts about Gustavo López Manzitti´s mariner, for he sang stentoreously throughout. I have Milhaud´s recording and I remember a previous staging here about 25 years ago, and the corresponding tenors didn´t do the part that way. I don´t have a score to check it out. Of course, although López Manzitti has a very strong voice, he is capable of singing softly, as he did recently in "Werther". And if the mariner didn´t want to be recognized he should have worn a beard (that of course is a producer´s decision).
Lombardero´s team was completed with Noelia González Svoboda (stage desiggn), Luciana Gutman (costumes) and Horacio Efron (lighting). The players were very good and the young conductor, Martín Sotelo, gave a good impression.
For Buenos Aires Herald