Magnificent Conducting by David Afkham of a Ginastera Rarity

SpainSpain Ginastera, Bomarzo: Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real / David Afkham (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 24.4.2017. (JMI)

Teatro Real’s Bomarzo © Javier del Real


Pier Francesco Orsini – John Daszak
Diana Orsini – Hillary Summers
Silvio de Nardi – Thomas Oliemans
Gian Corrado Orsini – James Creswell
Pantasilea – Milijana Nikolic
Julia Farnese – Nicola Beller Carbone
Girolamo – Germán Olvera
Maerbale – Damián del Castillo
Nicolás Orsini – Albert Casals
Messenger – Francis Tójar

New Production: Teatro Real and De Nationale Opera of Ámsterdam

Director – Pierre Audi
Sets and Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Costumes – Woijciech Dziedzic

This opera by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera is based on the novel of the same name by Manuel Mujica Láinez, who also wrote the libretto. It premiered in May 1967 in Washington and had been scheduled to be performed in Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón in August of that year, but it was banned by the military junta that then ruled Argentina. It was finally done at the Teatro Colón in 1972 (and returned there in 1984 and 2003), and has been staged – infrequently – in the last 50 years in New York, Los Angeles, Kiel, Zurich and London. Now the Teatro Real has decided to offer the opera in Spain for the first time.

Mujica Láinez’s novel has always been praised by critics and its many readers, but the same is not true of the libretto, which is a bit difficult to follow: it’s clear that the professions of writer and librettist are not exactly the same. The work recounts, in flashback, the memories of the protagonist, Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo. He has led an eccentric life, one full of family crimes, and has now drunk a potion that he believes will make him immortal – but it is really a poison.

Ginastera’s opera is a child of its time, and one cannot expect to hear melodies throughout it. It is somewhat irregular, particularly in the first half; the second part is more interesting from a musical perspective. It seems to me that on the whole the work is musically superior to other operas from the same period.

Pierre Audi’s production is interesting if not particularly brilliant. The action takes place, more or less, in contemporary times instead of the sixteenth century of the original. The stage is mainly an empty space, enclosed by walls, with a series of neon tubes in various positions. In the background is a rocky landscape that moves to the front of the stage at times during the opera and in the final scene. The stage is closed by a curtain on which are projected videos of ghostly figures that can be seen today in the gardens of the palace of Bomarzo, not far from Viterbo. The costumes are more or less contemporary and well suited, the lighting is remarkable, and the choreography is an important complement.

This production doesn’t offer any kind of re-reading of the work, beyond portraying the protagonist as homosexual and eliminating the hump from his back (although the libretto makes continuous references to it). Overall, it is a production that doesn’t offend and narrates the story well.

No doubt the best part of the performance was David Afkham’s musical direction. The current principal conductor of Spain’s National Orchestra, he gives a masterclass here on how to conduct a difficult opera. It’s hard to imagine what the result would have been without this outstanding conductor. His mastery of the score was spectacular, as was his authority on the podium and the nuances that he offered from start to finish. Under his leadership, both the orchestra and the chorus were excellent.

Pier Francesco Orsini is on stage from the beginning of the opera to the end. His interpreter was British tenor John Daszak, who seemed to me a luxury in the circumstances. His performance was always convincing, and his Spanish was perfect.

The rest of the singers remained a few steps behind him. Diana Orsini, Pier Francesco’s grandmother, was played by British mezzo soprano Hillary Summers, who was more convincing as an actress than a singer; she was practically inaudible several times. The protagonist’s brothers were interpreted by German Olvera in the part of Girolamo (who appears fully nude on stage), and Damián del Castillo as a correct Maerbale.

The astrologer Silvio de Nardi was sung by baritone Thomas Oliemans, who had problems with the tessitura. James Cresswell was adequate in the role of Gian Corrado Orsini, the father of Pier Francesco. Milijana Nikolic did well in the part of the courtesan, Pantasilea, and soprano Nicola Beller Carbone was good as Julia Farnese.

José M. Irurzun

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