Discovering a new opera that’s really good is one of life’s small pleasures and my latest is Benet Casablancas’ L’enigma di Lea. It’s a collaboration between the composer and the writer and theorist Rafael Argullol and it premiered at the Liceu in Barcelona in 201`9.
This is a very European piece. It’s as far away from the American school of “let’s turn a best seller or a movie into an opera” school as you can get. The plot is abstract, mythological and symbolist. The music is, as the booklet describes it, “firmly rooted in the great modernist tradition”. And linking text and music is a desire by both composer and librettist to get back to the roots of opera and beyond to a world where text and music work together to tell the story and to cast light on what it means to be human.
The story is complex and quite abstract. At some point in the distant past the beautiful Lea has been raped by a god. This has left her the keeper of a great secret (though she doesn’t understand it) but also adrift in time and space guarded/tormented by the two keepers; Millebocche and Milleocchi, who must prevent her getting into a relationship where she will divulge the secret. She is “pure instinct”. On her wanderings she reaches the end of the world where the Three Ladies of the Frontier explain that this is the place where all things must be confronted and also introduce her to the sleepwalker Ram who, in attaining pure reason, has lost his physical senses.
Fast forward to 2019 and Lea and Ram are both “inmates” in the “Institution for Outsiders” run by the enigmatic Dr. Schicksal; once circus owner and lion tamer, now the director of the institution and its oddly monolithic staff. Artists try to use Lea as a model to learn her secret without success. Finely despite the best efforts of her guardians, and the people demanding that Schicksal must declare freedom to be impossible, the three ladies facilitate the union of Ram and Lea declaring that they deserve “their moment of love in an endless night”. If this all sounds abstract and thinky, it is, but in a deeply satisfying and moving way.
The music is at one with the text. It’s a large orchestra and sometimes very loud and dissonant but it’s also lyrical with difficult but singable vocal lines. In a way that sounds contradictory but think Strauss’ Elektra. Not that this sounds at all like Elektra. Casablancas and Strauss have their own distinct voices but there’s a certain family resemblance. The use of woodwinds is particularly pleasing. Indeed conductor Josep Pons describes it as a sort of concerto for fluter and oboe. For the record the work is sung in Italian though the score specifies the language of the audience for the choral numbers, so Catalan here.
Carma Portaceli’s production is quite spare. The stage is largely bare but for a cage that raises and lowers. The stage pictures are largely created by the blocking, especially of the rather “totalitarian” chorus plus the effective use of dancers in. the “sex scene”. Much depends on the acting skill of the principals and they are really good. Allison Cook is a singer who is equally at home in mezzo and soprano roles and she’s a fantastic actor. She’s good throughout here but particularly fine in the scene with the three artists where she silently dominates the stage. Countertenor Xavier Sabata is amazing as the sinuous and creepy Dr. Schicksal and José Antonio López manages to convey great detachment as Ram until the final climactic scene. There’s fine singing and acting too from the supporting cast and chorus. Pons draws great clarity from his orchestra and manages the balance between the voices and the large orchestra well.
The picture on Blu-ray is excellent and although the only sound option is PCM stereo it’s also very good. Pep Hernández’ filming is interesting. It’s mostly unobtrusive but he does cut to some slightly shaky close ups of Lea when she’s being tempted/seduced to good effect. The filming works well with all the other elements to create a recording I found beautiful, moving and quite disturbing.
There’s a bonus track on the disk. It’s short interview clips with many of the cast and creative team and it’s informative. It’s backed up by a good booklet with a track listing, a synopsis with musical notes by the composer and other explanatory material. Subtitle options are Italian/Catalan, English, Castilian, Korean and Japanese.
All in all a well realized recording of a very fine new opera.