The first Spanish opera: Speech, song and stories

celos-sats-orchestra

Celos, aun del aire, matan

Russian premiere as “Любовь Yбивает”

14th October, 2016 at Moscow State Theatre Natalya Sats

 

How can singing a drama ever be ‘realistic’? This was the challenge facing the composers of the first operas, in Italy around 1600 and in Spain sixty years later. The Peace of the Pyrenees, which in 1659 ended the war between France and Spain, was sealed by the marriage of the Spanish Infanta, Maria Teresa to King Louis XIV of France. For the wedding celebrations in Madrid, the Marquis of Eliche produced two operas, the first fully-sung Spanish music-dramas:L a púrpura de la rosa (‘The Blood of the Rose’ lost, but later revived in Peru with music by Torrejón), and the following year, Celos, aun de aire, matan (Jealousy, even of the Air, Kills) which we now present on the Russian stage under the title Love Kills. Both operas were set by harpist and composer Juan Hidalgo to libretti by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, defining a new Spanish genre. Their fiesta cantada (sung celebration) was quite different from the Italian stilo rappresentativo of Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo, as well as from the Lully’s French comédie-ballet.

The first Italian operas imitate the rhythms and pitch-contours of serious, rhetorical speech in what we nowadays call Recitative. But within the Spanish tradition of realistic theatre, down-to-earth humour and popular songs established by Lope de Vega’s life-mirroring comedies, Calderón and Hidalgo sought alternative styles of representing everyday speech in music. The rhetorical artificiality of Recitative was suitable for gods and goddesses, but ordinary people should speak in a more natural style, and comic characters should have funny music for their skits. They found their solution in the Spanish tradition of story-telling ballad-songs with many strophes to the same tune, the famous and still-popular romances quoted and parodied in Cervantes’ Don Quijote (1615).

Hidalgo sets everyday speech to newly-composed strophic melodies – tonos humanos (secular tunes) – accompanied by a typically Spanish ensemble of guitars, harps and percussion. Spanish lyric traditions favoured refrain forms, encouraging Hidalgo to assemble elaborate musical structures from these simple, catchy tunes. In the first scene, he weaves together a martial tune for the heroine Pocris and a slow lament-refrain for her prisoner, Aura (guilty of the crime of Love) with the comments of the chorus. These tonos contrast with the goddess Diana’s recitative, and Aura’s cry for help, a dramatic invocation of all creation. As the hero, Cefalo comes to the rescue and confronts the goddess, the composer introduces a new sequence of tono and recitative.

Aura’s lover, Erostrato, encounters Diana’s gardiner, Rústico (literally ‘village idiot’, the traditional name for a theatrical clown). Rústico recounts the story so far, but in comic style: Hidalgo sets this to a popular song-and-dance tune, the seguidilla. The ensuing conversation, and Diana’s interrogation of Rústico’s wife, Floreta, are set to the next tono, alternating between duple and triple rhythms. But the music changes as Diana punishes Rústico by turning him into various wild animals. Cefalo comes to the rescue again, and under Aura’s influence, he and Pocris fall in love, to the sweet music of yet another tono and refrain. As the villagers gather outside Diana’s temple for the new moon celebrations, Cefalo’s servant, the cynical Clarín has his chance to summarise the plot, another comic song-and-dance number set to the low-style street-music of the xácara.

Calderón’s dramaturgy is also compounded from several elements. The mythological tragedy of Pocris, destined to be killed by her lover, Cefalo, is combined with the history of Eróstrato, destined to lose his identity after burning down the temple of Diana, and contrasted with the low comedy of Rústico (who also loses his identity), Floreta (attacked by her husband) and the anti-hero, Clarín. Poetical refrain-structures allow Calderón to emphasise certain mottos: Aura is transformed from condemned ‘victim of love’ to the gently inspiring ‘aura of Love’; she then changes Diana’s hymn ‘Death to Love’ into ‘Death to Indifference’. Another motto advises how to be ‘constant but not cruel’, and affirms that ‘love cannot be driven out by hate’. We hear many times that ‘if you are jealous of the air, jealous love kills’ and of course the hunters keep shouting “follow the beast!”. Cefalo is ‘dying for Pocris, living for Aura’, and both he and Erostrato ‘burn and freeze’ with passion. The final motto is wise advice to the young Infanta, about to marry a notorious womaniser: ‘although vengeance seems noble, once achieved, it disappoints’.

The incidental music in this production represents the Spanish baroque tradition of diferencias – improvised variations on popular dances, amongst them the famously wild folias. Like Hidalgo’s tonos, this instrumental music is structured as theme-and-variations or verses-and-refrain, in the lively, syncopated rhythms of Iberian and Latin-American dances. This blend of high art and popular traditions complements Calderón’s mix of tragedy and comedy to create a music-drama that remains highly relevant today, with its entertaining but profound exploration of how young people might manage questions of personal identity and emotions of jealousy and love.

 

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