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SOTELO: El Público

DVD Button Barkmin, Gaudí; López, Tatzl, Arcángel, Méndez, Ramón, Lozano, Caves, San Antonio; Klangforum Wien, Coro Titular del Teatro Real, Heras-Casado. Production: Castro. Bel Air Classiques BAC134 (DVD)/BAC534 (Blu-ray), 142 mins., subtitled

Recordings Sotelo CD Cover 517
Juliet in spirit: Gaudí in Madrid
© Javier Del Real
Recordings El Publico Cover 517
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IN 1922, Spanish playwright and poet Federico García Lorca, along with composer Manuel de Falla, organized a cante jondo contest at the Alhambra. Translated as “deep song,” this Andalusian style of flamenco singing demands powerful voices flexible enough to maneuver through serpentine, microtonal melismas derived from Arab music. García Lorca’s cante jondo-inspired poetry attempts to capture the sense of pain that characterizes flamenco; his verses conjure desolate moonlit landscapes where one hears only wind and weeping. Spanish composer and guitarist Mauricio Sotelo’s opera El Público, filmed at its 2015 world premiere at Teatro Real de Madrid, seems to inhabit García Lorca’s melancholy flamenco world. It’s an adaptation of the playwright’s 1929–30 play fragment of the same name, which translates to “The Audience” (or “The Public”). The Surrealist narrative is a metatheatrical fantasy exploring taboo love. A director, Enrique, standing in for the author himself, uses the stage as a means of confronting his homosexual desire for Gonzalo. Their relationship becomes a fragmented dream in which the lovers reincarnate into a series of alternate personae. At one point, Enrique attempts to stage a raunchy “theater under the sand” (that is, “underground theater”) version of Romeo and Juliet, which scandalizes the puritanical public.

Sotelo’s score draws on traditional Spanish music; there are extended, foot-stamping duets for flamenco guitarist Cañizares and percussionist Agustín Diassera, who are elevated above the orchestra pit, participating directly in the drama. Portraying a pair of hot-blooded horses are cante jondo singers Arcángel and Jesús Méndez, the latter of whom descends from a respected family of Romany flamenco cantaores. Their full-throated vocal delivery accompanies Darrell Grand Moultrie’s wild flamenco-meets-voguing choreography, performed by three more horses: costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic has outfitted the muscular male dancers like Lady Gaga backup boys, with floor-length white wigs, hot pants and sexy, high-heeled hooves. There’s more than a little suggestion of bestiality in this opera: during the Romeo and Juliet scene, Shakespeare’s heroine is visited by the horses, who proposition her for sex. Soprano Isabella Gaudí, dressed innocently as Juliet in a frock adorned with little white flowers, suddenly becomes a dominatrix, declaring that it is she who will “mount” the horses.

This isn’t the first opera of its kind; Osvaldo Golijov also drew on flamenco for his 2003 Ainadamar, an operatic account of García Lorca’s life and death. But Golijov’s musical language is more homogenous, with a heavier emphasis on folk music. In El Público, there’s a starker contrast between the flamenco passages and Sotelo’s own modernist style, which is largely atmospheric. Metallic, electronically produced sounds merge with shimmering string tremolos, forming ever-shifting textures that bubble up, intensify and then unravel into silence. Twisting woodwind runs evoke sand trickling downward in an hourglass, perhaps a reference to Enrique’s “theater under the sand.” Sotelo’s vocal writing, however, is a tighter synthesis of flamenco and operatic techniques: Gaudí’s mostly a cappella aria “A sea of sleep” shows off her light, airy soprano as she spins out breathless vocalise combining bel canto coloratura with cante jondo arabesques.

Of the two leading male roles, baritone José Antonio López, as Enrique, makes a stronger impression. There’s high-strung desperation in his vocal and bodily performances, and he exposes his character’s vulnerability in delicate falsetto lines. Bass-baritone Thomas Tatzl, as Gonzalo, is at his best when he transforms into a crucified Christ, reflected four times by enormous mirrors. His wide vibrato suits the quivering voice of Jesus—warm and forgiving, but also broken and beaten. The choral writing is cumbersome, and it’s hard for the female chorus, placed in house boxes, to stay together. Director Robert Castro’s production incorporates various elements from Surrealism in an absurd silent film, Cirque du Soleil-style costumes of sculpted wire by Dziedzic, and collage backdrops by Alexander Polzin. Though librettist Andrés Ibáñez has cut a lot from the play, García Lorca’s endless string of impossible Surrealist images quickly grows tedious. The work could have been cut by half an hour. —Joe Cadagin 

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