An intimate way with history…
The construction and inauguration of an opera house in any city will always be a historic moment. When in addition the architecture is of such beauty as this building, designed by Santiago Calatrava in so special an urban enclave as Valencia’s Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, its creation also brings immense collective profit to the society that has promoted it so earnestly and brought it into being.
Anyone reading this might think that Valencia lacks a lyric tradition. Not so: the city, birthplace of Vicente Martín y Soler and capital of a region with an extraordinary affinity for music – and in which, for example, there are more than five hundred wind bands – has been a significant operatic centre since the 18th century. There have been several buildings dedicated to lyric theatre in all its forms: the Teatro Principal, temple of opera from 1832 until well into the 20th century, stands out; as do the long-vanished Teatro Ruzafa and Teatro Apolo, emblematic homes of the género chico and sarsuela written in the Valencian language, amongst a long list of theatres the city had, or still retains. Aside from that many Spanish stage composers were Valencians – Giner, Chapí, Peydró, López Torregrosa, Lleó, Serrano, Penella, Vert, Rosillo, Magenti – almost all of whom started their careers in the city, and some of whom premiered works there whilst at their artistic zenith. Nevertheless for decades lyric theatre did not enjoy regular programming here, except for concert and semi-staged versions mounted in that splendid auditorium, the Palau de Música; and by the 1980’s Valencia’s lyric stream had all but run dry as the riverbed in which both the Palau de la Música and the new Ciutat de les Arts are situated.
So the recent opening of the impressive Palau de les Arts inside the dynamic, new museum-cultural complex has given the city a base making possible the regular large-scale staging of opera. The official inauguration took place a while ago, with an extraordinary concert (October 2005) presenting a declaration of intent as to programming policy: opera and zarzuela – both daringly taken on by the famous pairing of Alagna and Gheorghiu, and many of the rest of the stellar cast – touring and in-house productions, would form the axis of its artistic output. What’s more the theatre’s inaugural year has seen eight staged productions – one of them of zarzuela, of which more anon – as well as two operas in concert and a rich complementary programme of vocal and chamber concerts. Although the ratio between opera and zarzuela is clearly unbalanced, we must still congratulate the management for including the Spanish lyric genre at all, for in doing so they surpass the ridiculous situations prevalent in certain other Spanish opera houses.
The new production is directed by Emilio Sagi and conducted by Enrique García Asensio, two of the great specialists in this area. The management has not spared any expense, and the staging is executed with all the brilliance we might have hoped for. The result is a spectacle of extraordinary beauty deserving all praise. Sagi has come up with an evocative castle of mirrored light entirely consonant with the spirit of Chapí and Carrión’s first two acts; after this the final act, penned by the lightweight Aza, forces the Asturian director to make a drastic change of scenic style reflecting the much more playful music of the conclusion – in fact he locates the action on the apron of the stage to make the audience complicit in the comedy.
García Asensio inspires the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana (the ensemble created under director Lorin Maazel as resident pit orchestra for the Palau) to climaxes of impressive intensity in the first, two lyrical acts, allowing Chapí’s spectrum of orchestral colours to shine out. The Chorus contributes a far from negligibly generous sound and intelligent delivery in vocal support. The crowning glory is the casting of the principal singers and actors. They are headed by the indefatigable Ana María Sánchez, vocally impeccable and dramatically effective in the double role of witch and Blanca, her dominant contribution to the second act specially magical, as she transforms from “beast” to “beauty”. Then there’s Jorge de León, heroic in all the right ways as Leonardo, clearing with an exhibition of good taste and technique his dauntingly great soloistic hurdles. The blot on their copybook is a lack of full, mutual understanding in ensembles (i.e. the first act cuarteto and the dúos of all three acts, where their individual contributions are excellent).
The comedy pair share honours with the protagonists: Silvia Vázquez draws a tender Rosalía of expressive and powerful voice; Vicenç Esteve’s sympathetic Tomillo boasts precise intonation and beautiful timbre. The exceptional artistry of Trinidad Iglesias doesn’t get much chance to bloom due to drastic cuts inflicted on the spoken text by the director; it has to be said that in this respect the work’s sense of narrative suffers from Sagi’s decision, though evidently his intention is not to twist the original narrative. (I’ll forbear entering into the argument which says that cutting zarzuela dialogue is a “given” in the modern opera house!) He aspires to transport us to another dimension – that of the soul – and for this all he mobilizes all the forces at his disposal: music, voice (spoken and sung), movement (with deconstructed folkloric choreography from Nuria Castejón), lighting, costume and design – these three luminously done by Eduardo Bravo and Llorenç Corbera, who opted for the filamentary gradation of chromatic light which marks the staging. The result: an enthralling interior examination of one of the genre’s masterpieces.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro
Cast: La bruja -
Ana María Sánchez, soprano; Rosalía - Silvia
Vázquez, soprano; Magdalena - Trinidad Iglesias, mezzo-soprano; Madre
superiora - Maite Aguilera, mezzo-soprano; Leonardo - Jorge de Léon,
tenor; Tomillo - Vicenç Esteve, tenor; Inquisidor - Alberto Arrabal,
bass; Cura - Nahuel di Pierro, baritone; Inés - Diana Muñoz,
mezzo-soprano; Un oficial - José Javier Viudes, tenor; Un aldeano -
José Enrique Requena, tenor; Un soldado - Fernando Piqueras, baritone;
Cuerpo de baile; Orquesta de plectro “El Micalet” de Llíria
(Miguel Gómez, director); Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana (Francesc
Perales, director); Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Llorenç
Corbella (design); Eduardo Bravo (lighting); Nuria Castejón
(choreography); Emilio Sagi (d.); Enrique García Asensio (c.)