Ginastera - Bomarzo

Teatro Real, Madrid, Sunday May 7 2017

Conductor: David Afkham. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic. Videos: Jon Rafman. Choreography: Amir Hosseinpour, Jonathan Lunn. Pier Francesco Orsini: John Daszak. Gian Corrado Orsini: James Creswell. Diana Orsini: Hilary Summers. Girolamo: Germán Olvera. Maerbale: Damián del Castillo. Julia Farnese: Nicola Beller Carbone. Nicolás Orsini: Albert Casals. Silvio de Nardi: Thomas Oliemans. Pantasilea: Milijana Nikolic. Mensajero: Francis Tójar. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real.

Ginastera’s Bomarzo is so rare I decided to make a weekend of it in Madrid. I’m glad I did. In addition to four very full hours spent renewing acquaintance with the Prado and an excellent, extensive exhibition centred on Picasso and  Guernica at the Reina Sofia (not to mention good food and wine), the opera was magnificent. In the house, coupled with the action on stage the score, which I found quite austere on CD at home, came vividly to life and this was without a doubt the best of the various Pierre Audi productions I’ve seen.

Perhaps to make sure, in over two hours mainly of recitative, however varied and dramatic, there was enough going on to hold people’s attention, Audi augmented the singers with actors, dancers and videos, as well as mobile sets and props. It was a handsome production, carefully thought-through and crafted, technically tricky but slickly accomplished - one you really need to see more than once, as you can’t take everything that’s going on in at one sitting.

The set was oppressively black, as befits the tortured sentiments. Sometimes it was empty. At others, a hillock of black rocks, glistening like wet slack, slid forward. Black marble monoliths, smooth and silky-surfaced, served various functions, including as the garden's grotesque sculptures. Long, slender bars of cold white - occasionally dramatically coloured red or green - light, vertical or horizontal and nearly the full height or width of the stage, descended to imprison the characters even more claustrophobically in cage-like spaces. But they could also slowly break up, at times of particular drama, into a controlled cat's-cradle chaos, at all angles in the air above.

This might all have been too monochromatically designer-chic and sleek, not to say a bit "80s" in feel, had Audi not invited the young Canadian artist Jon Rafman to make videos to project at the rear. Rafman's universe is quite different. His work is varied in media and style. While some of it is near-classical marble sculpture, his original digital creations are sometimes quite gory spoofs of crude and garish video games. But, like many artists of his generation, he also uses found images from the trashier corners of the internet, and either presents them without comment or combines them into a sort of post-internet pop art. In the case of Bomarzo, the videos formed a slowly evolving, dreamlike (or nightmarish) kaleidoscope of images more or less closely related to the plot: most closely in the case of a giant, open-mouthed stone grotesque, an ogre, that I understand is actually in the Park of Monsters at Bomarzo, at the start and finish. The contrast in styles was quite unexpected but a good decision as Rafman's "scruffiness" brought warmth and atmosphere to the designer black-and-white.

The action was emphasised, as I mentioned, by athletic, gesticulating dancers, usually in unisex black. Audi signalled the flash-back and tied the plot neatly together (like Rafman's open-mouthed sculpture) by having the seven ages of man or, in this case, of Orsini (seven extras, from one old and bent-over to one near-toddler) file slowly in and take up low, twisting, crouching poses (perhaps also hinting at the garden statues) at the beginning, middle and end. He dismissed the hunchback's hump but injected a homoerotic undercurrent by – I assume – deliberately seeking out handsome young singers for the brothers (which must make casting ever harder than usual, especially for such a rare work), including a Girolamo willing and able not only to sing the part but strip stark naked to take his deadly plunge. The ever-watchful and apparently jealous young slave, an actor (it's a mute role) wore a smart blazer, an open-necked shirt offering glimpses of suntanned muscles and eventually, once pulled off, revealing them, and leather trousers. The director hinted at incestuous stirrings by having Pier-Francesco at one point violently kiss his brother Maerbale. He also “beefed up” the close, mutually-supportive relationship between Orsini and his grandmother into something reminiscent of Agrippina and Nero: in this reading, Pier Francesco actually pushes his naked brother off the rocks, and Girolamo most certainly hits his head on one, as we actually see his grandmother banging it murderously against one of the marble monoliths until sure he's dead.

It was only later that it occurred to me that with her big, white hair, big glasses and - once her son had, with her help, inherited - furs, she looked like Dame Edna Everage.

Jon Rafman, You Are Standing in
an Open Field (Waterfall)
, 2015
But, joking apart, it was, for me, Audi's best yet and I hope and trust he's proud of it. He should be. Meanwhile, in the pit David Afkham, as I mentioned above, brought the score to vivid, sparkling life. It was more multi-coloured and variegated than I remembered, grumbling, groaning, shimmering, glowing, gleaming and glittering with percussion and piano, wonderfully atomospheric but also quite often more conventionally rhythmic than I'd twigged to when listening to it on disc. Hardly a "difficult" piece (for the audience) and one that deserves to be performed a good deal more often than once every 30 or 40 years. As I said to someone online, I'd far rather have works in the schedule like this than the umpteenth Cav & Pag or Bohème. I noted, by the way, that the programming at the Teatro Real is interesting: next year they have, for example, Gloriana, another excuse for a visit.

Perhaps one reason for Bomarzo's neglect is the need to find someone brave (or foolhardy) enough to learn and sing the part of Pier Francesco. It's one of those roles the French call écrasants - crushing, vocally and dramatically. I imagine it's exhausting but hugely satisfying to carry it off as stupendously as John Daszak. Bravo to him. The rest of the cast was nearly all remarkably strong too, Nicola Beller Carbone in particular as Julia Farnese. I'd be very happy to have a chance to hear more of Germán Olvera and Damián del Castillo, whose roles are too short to be conclusive.

I'd also certainly welcome the chance to see this Bomarzo again, and as it's a co-production with Amsterdam I hope I will. Only so far I haven't found definite dates, just "in a future season..."

Here, Maestro Wenarto sing's Ginastera's Canción al arbol del olvido.


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