Monday, May 8, 2017

Ginastera: Bomarzo

I don't have access to the score--IMSLP denies its very existence--so for this post I have to rely on my ears and two essays on the opera printed in the program, "Bomarzo: Ópera Trágica con un estreno porteño 'bufo' " by Joan Matabosch, which translates, more or less, as "Bomarzo: a tragic opera with a comic Buenos Aires premiere" and recounts the interesting tale of how the opera was banned from being premiered in Argentina for several years--its first performance was in Washington, DC and was attended, oddly enough, by Hubert Humphries and Ted Kennedy. Times have changed, haven't they? At the time, it appears, the opera was on a theme fashionable enough to attract political attention, and probably the ban in Argentina just focused that attention. Let me translate some of the essay:
Based on the masterwork by Manuel Mujica Lainez and adapted for the libretto by the Argentinian writer, Bomarzo inverts the narrative structure of the novella. During his agony before the Mouth of Hell, which he had sculpted from the rocks of his garden, poisoned by a magic potion supposed to give immortality, Pier Francesco Orsini, the duke of Bomarzo, recalls his life of anguish and crimes reflected in the monsters of stone of his garden in the form of fifteen episodes interspersed with interludes which follow the model of Wozzeck by Alban Berg. In the style of a grand "flash-back" a penitent Pier Francesco sees pass by before his eyes his own life of psychological anguish and crimes.
Sounds like fun! In the production, one thing I didn't mention was that nearly throughout, images and animations were projected on the back wall of the stage and they often featured images of the sculptures, such as this one:

Click to enlarge
I should say that no-one knows much about the real world sculptures which were rediscovered in the 20th century. Lainez visited them on a trip to Italy and the story he came up with, while based on an historical context, is in fact, fictional.

The second, and longer essay, is by Jorge Fernández Guerra, a composer and music journalist. It is titled "Bomarzo: El Ecuador de una producción líríca" the literal translation of which is "Bomarzo: the equator of a lyrical production" which probably means that I am missing some idiom! In any case he goes on to mention that all three of Ginastra's operas were composed in a concentrated burst of creativity between 1963 and 1971, with Bomarzo falling in the middle. Speaking of opera in the era of the 60s, Guerra writes:
Opera in those agitated years, the sixties, experienced a widely shared disdain, and the production of new operas can be considered the lowest in history. We can highlight at most The Bassarids of Hans Werner Henze, premiered in 1966, and Ulisse by Luigi Dallapiccola, premiered in 1968, as rarities. And as for the international scene, opera in Spanish was nearly invented in those years.
Henze also wrote El Cimmarón, a chamber opera for four musicians, in 1970, which has a Spanish libretto, though it can be presented in either English or German as well. I know this for sure as I performed in the Canadian premiere in 1976.

As Guerra mentions, all three of Ginastera's operas take place in historically distant eras: Don Rodrigo in Toledo in the eighth century,  and both Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci in Italy in the sixteenth century.

The impression I came away with most strongly is that of the act of framing. The opera begins and ends with an offstage child singing a folksong melody to the text of how he is glad he is not the much-tormented Bomarzo! This creates a frame for the whole opera, advanced musical techniques framed by a folksong. The garden of mannerist sculptures creates another frame as it acts as context for the narrative and, in the form of the stony hill that moves forward and back onstage, as a frame and background for the movement of the characters. This might explain one of the more mysterious elements in the production, those bars of light I mentioned the other day. From time to time, luminous bars of light, like neon tubes, descend from above the stage and create frames, boxes and corridors in which the characters move. For example, when Bomarzo's father dies, he is lying on a stone slab, covered in blood, and four bars of red light descend to each corner of the slab. Yes, the bars of light, while usually white, also appear as red, green and lavender. They move up and down vertically, but also drop down as horizontal forms and at various angles. They also extend and shorten. Pretty clever and I still don't know how it was done.

I would like to talk more about the music, but not having the score is limiting. It would also help to see the production again. However, I did notice some things. Apart from the folksong (whether borrowed or original) that opens and ends the opera, certain other elements recur. There are some beautiful, lyric arias, such as those by Julia Farnese, Bomarzo's wife. Much of what Bomarzo himself sings is anguished and expressionistic, hence the claim that he is following Berg's model, Wozzeck. There are typical 60s "crash-bang" sections with lots of percussion contrasting with sustained string harmonies, mostly of built-up fourths. A lot of the explorations of the 60s were in using intervals, rhythms and textures that previous composers tended to avoid.

One weakness of this piece (and, it should be said, lots of pieces in this style) is that after a while bang and crash, fourths and irregular rhythms tend to mash together in the ear into a kind of sonic "grey goo." There just isn't a lot to hang on to. You don't walk home humming your favourite aria or tapping your favourite rhythm. Not to say that the opera is not dramatically effective, it is, but there is little in the actual music that is terribly memorable. One thing that both Berg and Henze did in their dramatic works is to use familiar genres and styles, though transformed. Henze makes use of typically Latin musical elements in El Cimmarón (which is set in Cuba) and Berg uses some characteristic musical styles in Wozzeck such as Austrian army bugle calls, a passacaglia and a march. Ginastera's score inhabits a more remote and surreal world.

There is an interesting commentary on this production and on Ginastera and the opera by José Luis Téllez, in Spanish, that you might have a look at. It begins with a brief clip of the production (this is the section that quotes the Dies Irae):

UPDATE: Sorry, that is not the section with the Dies Irae quote. It comes in a ballet scene, an instrumental interlude in the form of a scherzo:

Here you can see a whole bunch of those light bars I was mentioning. Also, the dancers, both men and women, are dressed in "unisex" costumes.


Steven said...

One of those operas that it's more enjoyable to read about than to watch. Gave up on the video recording myself after the umpteenth crash-wallop. You're left feeling just so cold (even more so when one is watching it via a recording, of course). The score is up for online viewing at old Boozy Hawkes, by the way, if you have a (free) account:

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, yes. I probably would not have gotten very far into it, just listening. But the production was interesting. Thanks for mentioning that the score is up at Boosey and Hawkes. I saw that, but after I had written the posts!

Marc Puckett said...

I watched Saturday via Opera Platform and ended up in several places doing other things on the laptop-- which I don't do, generally, when I've set out to listen to music that's new to me. Sonic grey goo, too much of it, anyway.

But the spectacle! some operas are better at the theatre, some are musically brilliant-- lovely to listen to-- but the production is disconcerting or incoherent &c. Rolf Gaska reviewed the original production at Washington in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik under the headline: Porno im Belcanto-- but I'd deal with the story if I found the sound world more appealing.

Bryan Townsend said...

I get the idea that the original production was more pornographic than this one, which really wasn't. There was one aria sung by a naked guy and a brief section later on where he and a naked woman wander through the garden, but that was pretty much it.

It's not Mozart!

Will Wilkin said...

Thanks Bryan, for the interesting review, and really for all your travel writings. I'm enjoying your vacation.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm glad! If I'm not doing something semi-useful, it just doesn't feel right! I'm not a "vacation" person.

Marc Puckett said...

"It was not painful to watch, nor taxing on the ears or brain. It was just static." I lifted that from Norman Lebrecht's post about Thomas Adès's Exterminating Angel that's just done at Covent Garden. However 'grey goo' Bomarzo seemed at times, I didn't find that it lacked a certain forward motion carrying along the nightmare plot: as you suggested, though, edit some of it away, going from 2.5 hours to perhaps 90 minutes, and we'd get along just fine.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hm, interesting. I don't know Adès' music very well, something I should rectify. No, Bomarzo is definitely not static and the narrative sets up a forward impetus. As for the problem of stasis in music, I think this is largely a harmonic issue. For a long time the war against tonality meant that the harmonic space was saturated with all 12 tones, whether or not the music was actually "12-tone" or not. This leads to a certain stasis as harmonic motion is based on the concept of moving from one small set of pitches to another, different one. It is also furthered by voice-leading in the upper voices and the movement of the bass. In these post-avant-garde times, many composers have returned to tonality, but informed by the minimal or process music school of Reich and Glass. What this often means is that there is no harmonic motion because you never get off the tonic! Again, stasis, but for a different reason. Wouldn't it be great to figure out a way to really do harmony again?

Marc Puckett said...

It looks like 'We left at the interval' was at the same performance you were, Brian; his take, online yesterday, is here. Your different takes on the light lines-- frames, cages-- is interesting.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the link!d He or she obviously knows the opera much better than I do.