Ginastera’s Opera Bomarzo – Direct from Madrid

Editor’s Note: One of our contributors, Roger Emanuels, submitted this review from Madrid

I enjoy Spain. I enjoy its culture and traditions. I have often quipped that I would happily travel to Madrid for dinner. Now I can boast that I went to Madrid not only for dinner, but for opera too. Upon hearing that Alberto Ginastera’s 1967 opera Bomarzo was on the schedule for the Royal Theater in Madrid, I decided to reserve a ticket online and plan a springtime visit to a favorite travel destination. 

Bomarzo is the Argentine composer’s second of three operas that he composed during the years from 1963 to 1971. Originally scheduled for performances in Buenos Aires following its premiere in Washington, D.C., once the South American military government read the reviews, the opera was banned from production there, citing reports of nudity and suggestions of unacceptable sexual activity. Since then it has been produced several times in Buenos Aires and around the world, and is considered one of the great operas of its time. The libretto is taken from the award-winning 1962 novel of the same title by the Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainez. The novel is written as an autobiography of real-life Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo in mid 16th century Italy. The author creates a personality far beyond what is known historically, and makes the Duke a diminutive hunchback who was bullied by his father and siblings as a child and had difficulty in relations with women as an adult. The real Duke had created a “park of monsters,” consisting of several stone sculptures out of the existing rock outcroppings at Bomarzo, near the village of Viterbo not far from Rome. The park is a tourist destination today. In the opera the emotionally tortured Duke proclaims, “At last I’ve finished the creation I dreamed of and the park of the monsters of Bomarzo is done. Since I myself am a monster, I’ve surrounded myself with brother monsters, embodying the episodes of my suffering life.”

The Duke’s astrologer has created a magic potion, which will grant him immortality. As the Duke drinks the potion, his nephew secretly slips poison into it (the Duke earlier had ordered the murder of his brother) and he dies at the opening of the opera. He relives his life in a series of flashbacks, which end in a repeat of drinking the potion at the end of the opera.

The opera consists of two acts with fifteen scenes, with a prelude and instrumental interludes that separate the scenes. Eight major characters appear with dancers and actors and a chorus in the orchestra pit. Video projections against the back wall of the stage often showed the existing stone sculptures in the garden where the action takes place. Other modern technology was also effective, including what appeared to be fluorescent tubes that grow and changed with vertical and horizontal lines that seemed magical. Perhaps they were produced by holographic projection? The stage was often bathed in various shades of grey, and the overall effect was visually stunning. Costumes were often black and shades of grey. The stage action continued seamlessly — with dance and acting during the orchestral interludes. Stage director Pierre Audi created a natural flow of movement that was never static. Supertitles in Spanish and English were projected above the stage and appeared dim and with small letters, taking some effort to read. Fortunately I had read the libretto and knew the story rather well.

The singing was strong and sure throughout the opera from all characters. The Duke was magnificently played by British tenor John Daszak, who appears in every scene. His only break was in the one intermission of the almost three hour long performance. Other notable performances were given by the Astrologer played by the Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans and the Grandmother by Welsh contralto Hilary Summers. The orchestra, under the direction of David Afkam, performed the challenging score with security and excellent sound, never interfering with the singing.

The vocal lines were angular and abrupt. There was no melisma (when a single syllable is sung over several notes), negating any lyricism. The only exception was in the part of the Shepherd, sweetly sung by Patricia Redondo at the beginning and the end of the opera: “In all my poverty I would not change places with the Duke of Bomarzo. He has a flock of rocks, I, of sheep. I have enough with what is mine, this peace of Bomarzo, the sweet voice of the stream, the song of the locust, the happy solitude of God, who is everywhere here. I would not change places, in all my poverty, with the Duke of Bomarzo, dragging his hump burdened with his sins.”

Along with a superb performance by tenor Daszak in the lead role, it was the orchestra that excels in this work. It is a very complex score, making use of serial techniques and microtones. The latter casts an eerie mood in the Prelude. The music creates dramatic tension as the story unfolds. The Symphony Orchestra of Madrid provided a splendid performance that received by far the strongest applause after the performance. The Teatro Real of Madrid is an excellent opera house, though patrons often must fend for themselves with very few ushers available.


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