OPERA NEWS - Bomarzo
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CD Button Penagos, Simon, Turner; Novoa, Torigi, Devlin, Gregori, Ellis, Romaguera; Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera Society of Washington, Rudel. No libretto. Sony 88985350882 (2)

Recordings Bonmarzo Cover 217
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ALBERTO GINASTERA'S  Bomarzo is famous for being the opera that was too sexy for Argentina, the composer’s home country. After its 1967 world premiere in Washington, D.C., the work was to have been performed at Teatro Colón, in Buenos Aires. But its exposed breasts, dream-orgy ballet and implied homosexual relationship were too much for the prudish military government, and the production was canceled. Bomarzo then suffered overly harsh criticism when New York City Opera staged it the following year. Now that Sony has rereleased this Columbia recording of the initial Opera Society of Washington production, it’s clear that Bomarzo is not a second-rate work of pornography—it’s a masterpiece of postwar opera that deserves a spot in the repertoire.

Bomarzo is like a Renaissance cabinet of wonders filled with strange, musty artifacts—skeletons, volumes of demonology, astrological charts and alchemical apparatuses. Ginastera’s librettist, Manuel Mujica Láinez, adapted his own 1962 novel of the same name. It’s historical fiction about Pier Francesco Orsini, a sixteenth-century Italian duke famous for his grove of stone monsters. Visitors to Bomarzo, a small municipality forty miles northwest of Rome, can still walk among the hideous dragons, elephants and giants that wrestle in front of the gaping Mouth of Hell sculpture. Mujica Láinez depicts Pier Francesco himself as a monster—a deranged hunchback. The opera outlines the course of the Duke’s life and the development of a tortured psyche—his miserable childhood and abuse at the hands of his brothers and father, his pathetic attempts at seduction due to repressed homosexuality, and the demon of inferiority that haunts him, symbolized by his own jeering reflection. His one consolation is the promise of immortality predicted by his astrologer. But at the end of the opera, the philter of everlasting life turns out to be poison. As he dies in the jaws of his garden’s enormous Hellmouth, Pier Francesco realizes that his immortality is tied up with the hideous stone bestiary he created.

In the opera’s prelude—a disturbing musical depiction of the Duke’s monstrous grove—Ginastera lays out the compositional tools that make up the work’s musical language—rattling bones in the form of col legno strings and wooden wind chimes; growling flutter-tongue flutes that play sour microtonal pitch inflections; unseen chorus members who whisper, “Bomarzo.” A trilling harpsichord evokes the Renaissance but also adds a macabre touch. In some passages, players are asked to improvise simultaneously, resulting in a jungle-like controlled chaos. The prelude ends with a twelve-tone melody in the horns that leads up to the final shimmering cluster chord before the opera begins.

But the score is by no means a jumble of modernist gimmicks, as Ginastera’s critics in the ’60s unfairly said; in fact, the composer balances these avant-garde instrumental techniques with more conventionally operatic vocal writing. His particular brand of serialism is far from the calculated, impersonal music of his Princeton and Darmstadt contemporaries. Rather, he manipulates the twelve-tone system—much like Berg—to generate Romantic-style voice lines. Folk tunes, madrigals, courtly dances, church music and other traditional forms provide familiar points of departure for each scene. At the same time, Ginastera distorts these forms so that they fit into his eerie sound world. In one chilling instance, a jingle-bell-accompanied mandolin quotes the Dies Irae as part of a carnivalesque masquerade, as if a grinning Death, dressed as Harlequin, had joined the festivities.

Mexican tenor Salvador Novoa, as Pier Francesco Orsini, is a dead ringer, vocally, for Plácido Domingo. He brings Hamlet-like depth to his hunchbacked character’s five soliloquies, engaging in violent outbursts of Sprechgesang and shouting, as well as lyrical moments of vulnerability. As the Duke’s grandmother, contralto Claramae Turner (who a decade earlier played Cousin Nettie in the film version of Carousel) is tender and reassuring as she comforts her frightened grandson with the legend of an ancestral she-bear that protects the Orsini family. Joanna Simon’s deep, voluptuous mezzo suits the bare-breasted courtesan Pantasilea, who cackles at the impotent Pier Francesco. Under Julius Rudel, the Opera Society of Washington Chorus, which serves mostly as an offstage echo or portrays invisible spirits, rises to the challenges of Ginastera’s score, executing dense, dissonant chords and even moaning in sexual ecstasy.

As you’d expect, there’s no text with the recording. If you read español, there’s a Spanish-only libretto online, or you might be able to get a hold of the dual-language libretto published by Boosey & Hawkes. I also discovered that the B&H website offers free access to the complete orchestral score, which includes an English singing translation under the Spanish text. —Joe Cadagin 

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