Meet Lord Byron, Deviant: Agustí Charles’ New Opera in Barcelona

01/07/2011

A.Charles, Lord Byron: Soloists, Orchestra BCN 216, Cor del Liceu. Martin Lukas Meister (conductor). Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona. 28.06.2011 (JMI).

Coproduction Gran Teatre del Liceu, Staatstheater Darmstadt, Madrid’s Teatros del Canal.

Director: Alfonso Romero Mora
Sets: Dirk Berker
Costumes: Gabriela Salaverri
Lighting: Alfonso Romero Mora

Cast:

Lord Byron: Gerson Sales
Doctor Polidori: Malte Godglück
Percy B. Shelley: Norbert Schmittberger
Mary: Muriel Schwarz
Claire: Margaret Rose Koenn
Fletcher: Lasse Penttinen

Photo courtesy Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona, © A. Bofil

Barcelona’s Liceu is the second company to stage Lord Byron by the Catalan composer Agustí Charles, the world premiere of which took place last March in Darmstadt. The result of this performance was disappointing.

Agustí Charles is an award winning contemporary composer born in 1960 and author of several symphonic and chamber works. This is his second opera, after a chamber opera La Cuzzoni, which also premiered in Darmstadt in 2007.

Lord Byron has a libretto by Marc Rosich and is an episode in the life of the English poet in 1816, a year after the battle of Waterloo, where he places the first scene of the opera. Lord Byron and his friend Dr. Polidori are on their trip to spend the summer in Switzerland, where they will meet writer Percy B. Shelley and his wife Mary, besides her sister Claire, with whom Byron had a casual encounter, leaving her pregnant. The arrival in Geneva coincides with the effects of the eruption of Tambora volcano, whose ashes left the summer in Central Europe with little sunlight and low temperatures. During the evenings of their stay at Villa Diodati the travelers decide – at  Lord Byron’s initiative – to  submit new  horror stories, leading to the creation of two works,  Frankenstein’s Monster by Mrs. Shelley and  The Vampire by Lord Byron, although this last one only as an outline, being later published by Dr. Polidori as his own work. Then the libretto loses interest as the opera progresses and becomes a series of pretentious ideas about nature and free love, which only serve to introduce us to a pretty vicious group of characters, especially Lord Byron himself, whose portrait  by the librettist of the opera could not be more negative. More than a drama it is rather a series of long and tedious scenes.

Agustí Charles’ music makes use of all the expected clichés of the contemporary composer’s tool box, with huge use of percussion and an absolute lack of tunes. It’s  mostly loud, it’s largely uninteresting, but there are a few pleasant moments written for the chorus.

The stage production is by Alfonso Romero Mora but has to contend with more percussion sprawling up from the pit and the chorus at the back. The scene changes are achieved with props. The production is effective, but  there are so many sex scenes throughout the opera that they become boringly repetitive, which is something good sex (scenes) should never be.

Judging the musical direction of an opera of this kind is not easy, but I found Martin Lukas Meister  to be a remarkable conductor, always in full control of stage and pit.

The opera text was in Catalan, but the cast mostly German. They were all mostly unknowns and their voices modest, almost inaudible in some cases. For the record Lord Byron was the Brazilian countertenor Gerson Sales. Norbert Schmittberger was a very modest Percy B. Shelley. The two women offered a genuine rivalry in poor voices both in quality and size. The only voice of medium size came from Malte Godglück as Dr. Polidori.

Liceu was filled to around 80% at the start of the show. After the intermission, this figure came down to about 50% and at the final bows there were no more than 20% present. Not very encouraging figures.

Jose M. Irurzun

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