NOVEMBER 2016 | Ginastera: Bomarzo | Sony 88985350882NOVEMBER 2016 | Ginastera: Bomarzo | Sony 88985350882
By RAY PICOT
When I reviewed Karl-Heinz Steffens' superb recording of the Opera Suite from Ginastera’s Bomarzo (Capriccio C5244) earlier this year, there was no indication that the full opera (composed 1966/67) would be released. However, you no longer need to search the used LP market for a decent copy of the original 1968 cast recording from CBS, as Sony has timed their reissue of the iconic and only CBS recording with the composer’s centenary, as a bargain-priced 2-CD box.
Having relied, like so many, on a Antonio Tauriellos’ Teatro Colon production of 1972, which can be viewed on Youtube, it is great to have this newly remastered edition under the baton of Julius Rudel who conducted the world premiere. The recording has come up in mint condition with an excellent soundscape and a cast who really understood the piece (although there is no doubting the authenticity of Tauriello’s reading, the sound is just not so good), so perhaps this maligned masterpiece will at last draw people into appreciating what the composer considered his best opera. The recording comes with a slim booklet setting out the scenes and a brief summary of the plot, but no libretto (which I presume was omitted for economy in this ‘Classical Opera’ series). So whilst looking for a libretto online, which I duly found in original Spanish but with no translation on www.operafolio.com along with his two other operas, Don Rodrigo (1964) and Beatrice Cenci (1971), I set about trying to find more information about the production.
The opera was due to receive its world premiere at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, in the summer of 1967 but the president banned the work due to its sexual content, and Argentina had to wait until 1972 for a performance. It found a ready home for its world premiere in Washington in 1967 with Julius Rudel conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera Society of Washington with soloists Salvador Nova, Brent Ellis, Isabel Penagos and Richard Torigi. The work was received enthusiastically and was recorded within the year by CBS, which was surely a very forward-looking reaction in those days (though this was the time when CBS passed down to us some amazing recordings of Carlos Chavez’ music, still awaiting reissue). Written in the composer’s neo-impressionist style, Bomarzo is an extraordinary amalgam of the prevailing modern styles, but nonetheless, welded into a very convincing and dramatic whole. It still divided critical and public reaction and it was not always so well received everywhere it was performed. It has gradually slipped from favour, though look out for a new production in Madrid next year.
My curiosity was piqued over subsequent performances and quite unexpectedly I found the opera received its UK premiere 40 years ago this month, conducted by Leon Lovett! Delving deeper, I came across an unexpected ILAMS connection. Of course ILAMS was not in existence in November 1976 but it seems that the New Opera Company in association with ENO was due to introduce two modern works for the coming season and decided on Bomarzo, which was probably influenced by Lord Harewood who had reviewed the New York production. The organisers wished to have an English language production, and turned to the exceptional musician, author, critic and Hispanophile, Lionel Salter, for this task, noting also that he who had already translated many other opera libretti and lieder into English. For those of us involved with ILAMS, Lionel Salter is also celebrated as a co-founder of our Society in 1997, though sadly he died 3 years later.
There are no recordings of this English language version to my knowledge, but the feedback about his labour of love was broadly positive. Interestingly, in his obituary of Lionel Salter, Martin Anderson wrote for The Independent, in relation to the Bomarzo project, that noting Salter's approach was to maintain the dramatic aim of the music, without losing the meaning in a bland translation. Salter contacted Ginastera over some issues he was having, and the composer agreed to a musical change that he recommended to help preserve the original meaning when translated into in English.
This version received its first performance at The Colisseum, London, on 3 November 1976 and was warmly received. Critical reaction was varied, not least from Arthur Jacobs who, writing for the Janunary 1977 edition of Opera magazine, thought that the work lost in comparison to Berg’s Wozzeck and criticised aspects of the performance and production. However, more importantly Bomarzo was the first Latin-American opera to be produced in London in the 20th century, according to Salter, and undoubtedly helped open the public’s ears to the art music of this continent.
A more balanced view of the piece can be found in the discriminating writing of Lionel Salter, who for the same magazine wrote a detailed article timed for the UK premiere, entitled 'Dark Deeds in Bomarzo'. In this, he traces the genesis of the work from the inspiration the Argentine writer, Manual Mujica Lainez, found in the extraordinary and horrific figures carved out of volcanic stone in the Park of Monsters, outside Viterbo in northern Italy. These were attributed to the late 16th century at the time the area was ruled by the Duke of Bomarzo, Pier Francesco, a member of the powerful Orsini family, who was married to Giula Farnese. The reason for these creations is not known but they drew a powerful history-inspired novel from Lainez in 1962 in which Ginastera found inspiration and asked the author to adapt to a libretto for a new opera commission, written in flash-back form, and quite deliberately following the example of Wozzeck in terms of structure, though the musical language was his own. Salter described the opera as a ‘piece noir’ and speculated over how the determinedly conservative opera audience would react to Ginastera’s radical and controversial work, though drawing solace from positive reactions in Washington Post (‘ a modern masterpiece which grips the imagination and touches the heart’). Salter is careful not sway the reader of his opinions but was clearly drawn to the work and very carefully also explains the clever use by the composer of the different styles and devices in the work he feels ‘are of the greatest possible subtlety and precision’.
In conclusion, I whole heartedly recommend this fascinating reissue, particularly as it represents the composer at his most inspired. It is fitting to look back at the pioneering efforts of Lionel Salter, who did so much to change attitudes towards Iberican music, of which we are the beneficiaries. I am indebted to John Allison, the editor of Opera who kindly provided me with a copy of Lionel Salter’s article and Arthur Jacobs’ review. For those that would like to read Lionel Salter’s perspicuous article, please contact me at ILAMS.
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