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Iberian Airs 

Thursday, May 27 2004
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Spain’s music is the art of the soloist, and Jordi Savall’s old instruments sing it well. He brought some of this music to the Getty Center two weekends ago with his ensemble, Hespérion XXI, and it was a fine occasion. The Getty’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium is a utilitarian sort of room that doesn’t inspire artistic thoughts by itself, but in another part of the museum there was an exhibition of Spanish drawings and prints from about the same era

as the music, from the 1500s to the time of Goya. This, too, was mostly single-line work, elegant designs surrounded by a lot of space; if you kept the artwork in mind while listening to the music, it all came together.

The ensemble, which hails from Barcelona, has changed personnel over the years under its leaders — Savall, who draws magic from his viola da gamba, and his wife, Montserrat Figueras, whose deep, plangent contralto is the exact equivalent of her husband’s instrument, a sound that makes strong men weak. Their kids Arianna and Ferran were along this time to make this a family affair; they sing and play many instruments. The percussionist Pedro Estevan may be a family “outsider,” except that his playing — even on things as simple as a couple of sticks — becomes a blood relative of everybody else’s work. Every time I see the group perform, there’s a kind of dissolve between the audible and the visual. That happened this time, too, even within the bare walls of the room at the Getty.

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The program was an interesting grab bag. Some of the most significant early Spanish music comes from the outer edges: the Sephardic songs the Jewish exiles then carried to other countries, and the Catalán songs in their fierce, defiant, separatist language. Much of the music the group performed exists merely as outlines calling for improvisations. All of this the Hespérion people handled wonderfully well, and they threw in some contemporary improv that didn’t at all break the style. Everything they perform — at this concert and on their own Alia Vox record label, which Harmonia Mundi distributes — has this marvelous sense of sounding very old and brand-new simultaneously. Daughter Arianna found notes of her own devising to sing a love poem redolent with ancient symbolism. Son Ferran, the latest addition to the group, sang a high-flying improv in an appealing, reedy tenor. But the sound memory that I summon up, a week later, embodies the loving obsessions of the instrumental partners repeating a simple chaconne bass by Tarquinio Merula while the voice of Montserrat Figueras floated like a royal purple robe above it all in a continuous melodic exaltation. During such moments you ask yourself whether music can get any better, and the answer has to be: No.

 

Both L.A. Opera’s final seasonal offerings are set in a storybook, operatic Spain, and Figaro’s marriage ceremony actually includes a Mozartian fandango, if a rather stately one. The new Marriage of Figaro, which opened last weekend, is the production of Ian Judge, after four times around for the respectable Sir Peter Hall version; it is splendidly sung, tidily conducted by Stefan Anton Reck in his local debut, but burdened with visuals that range from inexplicable to hideous.

In the former category is a design sense — both in Tim Goodchild’s generally dismal sets and in the strangely unfocused costumes of Deirdre Clancy — that seems to lie across several centuries at once. During “Porgi amor,” her haunting aria of loneliness, Countess Almaviva is obliged to recline in her Louis XV bedroom swilling wine from a new-looking bottle and chatting into a white bedside telephone (to whom? Susanna? A previous scene had shown an old-fashioned annunciator system in working order). The disguised lovers in the final scene prowl the palace gardens in 18th-century ball gowns and military costumes while equipped with modern-day flashlights. The business of keys, crucial to the action in the second act, is carelessly managed; a door ostensibly locked one moment yields to the touch the next.

This I find intrusive and, if you’ll pardon the expression, borderline insane. It goes against what is otherwise a sublime musical performance, most of all by the Susanna and Figaro of Isabel Bayrakdarian and Erwin Schrott, both recent winners of Plácido Domingo’s “Operalia” competitions and both singing actors of taste, intelligence and a marvelous command of the Mozartian line. For Ms. Bayrakdarian’s spinning of the radiant, silver, stardust-encrusted thread of her “Deh vieni” aria in the last act, with disarming stage presence to complement, no appropriate critical terms are yet known to me. As the battling Almavivas, Darina Takova and David Pittsinger were considerably above okay, while a lithe mezzo named Sandra Piques Eddy, also new to the company, created a scene-stealing Cherubino of pure adolescent testosterone.

 

And then there’s Merlin, which is also Spanish but no way soloistic. Are you ready to accept the news that the same Isaac Albéniz who composed all those virtuosic piano pieces and Spanish dances also entertained the notion of creating an operatic trilogy on the legends of King Arthur — in English — and actually got all the way through the first part?

Albéniz completed Merlin in 1902, immediately set out on Lancelot, dropped it halfway and left Guinevere untouched. The texts were by an eccentric Brit named Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who had also become Albéniz’s patron; they are in a highfalutin synthetic Olde English beside which Tolkien reads like this morning’s Times. Merlin deals with Arthur’s arrival and marriage to Guinevere (a mute dancer) and the old wizard’s overthrow at the hands of Morgan le Fay. On a BBC/Opus Arte DVD of a 2003 production from Madrid’s Teatro Real, in a revised and apparently cleaned-up orchestration by José de Eusebio, the opera’s three acts run close to an hour apiece, not far behind Parsifal — which it somewhat resembles in, say, a John Williams rewrite.

Of the Albéniz we know and love there isn’t a smidge — until, that is, late in the third act, when Morgan and her gnomes start planning their sinister derring-do, the orchestra breaks out in something close to a seguidilla, and finally — too late — we’re back in Albéniz country. Too late, alas, also applies to major cast members: veteran Brünnhilde Eva Marton as Morgan le Fay and Carol Vaness as her accomplice Nivian, both of whom have sung on better days. The performance is identified as the world premiere of the Eusebio orchestration, and gets a snazzy production at Madrid’s opera house, full of fancy lighting effects and a lit-up Excalibur straight out of Star Wars. Merlin is exactly the right opera for the collector who thinks he already has everything but longs to be contradicted.

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