Argentina Strasnoy, Réquiem: Soloists,Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Colón. Conductor:Christian Baldini, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. 13.6.2014. (JSJ)
Temple Drake: Jennifer Holloway
Nancy Mannigoe: Siphiwe McKenzie
Gavin Stevens: James Johnson
Gowan Stevens: Brett Polegato
Governor: Cristian De Marco
Pete: Santiago Burgi
Jailer: Damián Ramírez
Judge: Mario De Salvo
Director: Matthew Jocelyn
Sets: Anick La Bissonière / Eric Oliver Lacroix
Costumes: Aníbal Lápiz
Lighting: Enrique Bordolini
Chorus: Miguel Martínez
For the second of its current season modern works – both 21st century no less – the Teatro Colón has put on a new commissioned opera from the Argentine, now German resident, composer, Oscar Strasnoy.
Simply entitled Réquiem, the work to a libretto by Canadian Matthew Jocelyn, is based on William Faulkner’s 1950 novel Requiem for a Nun. Set contemporarily (ca 1945) in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, it is centered on the young woman, Temple Drake, a former prostitute, who is compelled by her husband’s uncle, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, to confess her background in the murder of her baby, for which her maid Nancy Mannigoe is facing hanging.
In their notes Strasnoy and Jocelyn write that they were attracted to this subject in a continuing exploration (following their previous joint collaboration) of the themes of human tragedy and desperation. Other characters are Temple’s husband Gowan Stevens, their son Bucky, Pete, a former lover with whom she was planning to run away, Pete’s older brother Red (who appears as a voice), and the governor, the judge and the jailer.
The work, presented in English, opens with a prologue flashbacking a meeting of Temple and Pete – with the scene essentially repeated at the start of Act 2 – before moving into the ‘present’ of the closing stages of the trial of Nancy and the ensuing events over the subsequent four months played out in a series of scenes. These are interspersed with extracts from the requiem (in Latin) from the chorus, arranged church-like in stalls as a backdrop to the narrative.
Strasnoy’s music is dense, with instrumentation including an expanded percussion, soprano saxophone, harmonica, electric guitar, organ and piano. Hints of jazz and blues are present, gleaned during trips he made to Mississippi during composition. However, much of the style is declamatory, blurring the distinction between opera and play.
Nevertheless as amply demonstrated, a competent cast is required. American mezzo Jennifer Holloway well penetrated the character of the troubled Temple and baritone James Johnson skilfully portrayed the lawyer Stevens, while Canadian soprano Siphiwe McKenzie was a powerful Nancy and American Brett Polegato brought understanding to the role of Gowan. From the local cast members tenor Santiago Burgi was a nervy Pete, basses Cristian De Marco a wheedling governor and Mario de Salvo a correct judge, and counter-tenor Damián Ramírez a garrulous jailer.
The chorus and orchestra performed well under the meticulous baton of the young conductor Christian Baldini, who appears to have made modern music something of a specialization.
The direction was also polished and the sets and dress entirely appropriate, and giving substance and impetus to the otherwise slowness of the narrative.
In general Réquiem has been well received and praised, and certainly on this night, it was accorded an enthusiastic applause.
Jonathan Spencer Jones