My first encounter with the earliest surviving Spanish opera, Celos, aun del aire matan (1660) was a concert performance in Vienna in 2001 with (mostly) Spanish singers directed by Jordi Savall, and sung in the original Spanish. In the same festival, The Harp Consort performed the Spanish and South American dances of Ribayaz’s Luz y norte (1677). Since then, I have directed the first productions of Celos in UK (2003) and (last night) in Russia with local singers. All these projects necessarily involved some kind of translation of Calderón’s verse drama, for the audience and/or for performers.
In Vienna, it was assumed that singers understood the libretto. Indeed, Calderón’s vocabulary is not difficult for native speakers. But behind the mostly simple choice of words lies a wealth of hidden meaning, historical and cultural references. English speakers might well make a comparison with Shakespeare’s plays: we probably understand nearly all the words, but there is much that we will fail to grasp without further study. For that concert performance, there was insufficient rehearsal time for detailed text work with the singers, or for detailed work on Hidalgo’s quicksilver Hispanic rhythms. [Jordi subsequently captured those rhythms marvelously in the on-going Folias Criollas project, in which he directs the combined forces of Hesperion XXI and Ensemble Tembembe (Mexico)]. The Viennese audience were provided a German-language translation to follow, but it is fair to say that performers and audence alike were largely baffled by Calderón and Hidalgo’s masterpiece.
In Sheffield, we had the advantage of a production team already familiar with Torrejon’s setting of Calderón’s (1659) libretto, La púrpura de la rosa (1701). [Hidalgo’s earlier setting is lost, though some of his music survives in Torrejon’s work.] Some of our English singers were fluent Spanish-speakers, and with a student cast we had plenty of time for painstaking language and text work, coached by university lecturer Dr Anthony Trippett. For my own study, and to assist the singers, I made a line-by-line English translation. This translation was not a thing of beauty; it was very dry, often clunky, but it did serve its purpose of helping us all understand Calderón’s words. Of course, this is only the first step towards understanding the libretto’s deeper meaning, and those more profound discussions continued throughout the production, and over the years afterwards. I translated the entire libretto, and then made cautious and carefully considered cuts to reduce the running time to manageable proportions, whilst preserving plot, musical forms and poetic structures.
Meanwhile, the head of the university’s Spanish department, Prof Nick Round dedicated many hours of his free time to making a singable English translation. We did not use this in performance, but Nick’s work sparked off a lively debate about the purposes and priorities of translation. Of course, there can never be a perfect translation: every translator has to make difficult, sometimes heart-breaking choices between dry accuracy and poetic beauty; between sound and meaning; between metre and fidelity to the original; between familiar idioms in the local language and exotic, even alienating, literal renditions; between the author’s and translator’s different poetical aesthics. Any singable translation faces the formidable challenges of doing all this and matching words to music. [See Andrew Porter’s fascinating introduction to his singing translation of Wagner’s Ring here].
To help the English-speaking audience follow Calderón’s complex plot, in which interwoven myths are told and retold in unexpected manner, whilst goddesses, heroes and idiots interact as main action and comic sub-plots collide, we introduced onto the stage an additional character, the poet himself. Our Pedro gave linking commentaries in English between scenes, and even during the most confusing scene (in which the clown, Rústico, is transformed into a bewildering sequence of different animals). I created Pedro’s texts in verse, matching Calderón’s metre and assonance (rhythming of vowels) with the surrounding Spanish poetry. But of course, I was not translating, merely summarising; and there was no demand to fit my content into a given number of lines. Apart from the self-inflicted technical challenge of imitating romance verse, my priority was clarity: the purpose of these speeches was to ensure that the audience would understand the story.
Yet another translation project ran in parallel: Tony Trippett worked on polished renditions of Calderón’s many refrain texts, repeated mottos that recur frequently during the drama: “A woman can be constant, without being cruel”; “Long live Love, death to Neglect”; and of course, “Jealousy, even of the air, kills”, the title of the opera, a refrain which is sung many times during the final Act. Posters with these texts in English and Spanish were posted around the public areas of the performance venues, to give audience members a chance to reflect on some of Calderón’s most thought-provoking pronouncements. Since then Tony and I have worked on several other Spanish Early Music projects, including the first Spanish Oratorio (1704) and Passion (1706), and we continue to discuss the aesthetics and practicalities of opera translation.
This season’s production in Russia is staged by the Moscow State Opera & Ballet Theatre, Natalya Sats. This is a theatre for families and young people, the original home of Peter and the Wolf, where Georgy Isaakian presents an enormous repertory ranging from popular classics (Nutcracker, Carmen) to award-winning productions of serious and challenging works (Love of Three Oranges, Rappresentatione di Anima e Corpo). Where else in the world could one perform baroque opera to an audience packed with teenagers and twenty-somethings?
In this context, it was a given that Celos would be sung in Russian. This reflects the early baroque priority that every word should be understood by the audience, but the technical task for translators is enormous. Calderón’s Spanish libretto uses mostly short simple words, which are often highly compressed by multiple elisions, packing lots of meaning into very few syllables. The Russian language tends towards longer words, with many more syllables required to express the same thought. And whilst Calderón’s words are often simple, he loads those ‘easy’ words with multiple layers of hidden meaning and added significance. He also repeats key words throughout the drama, making subtle cross-connections between different scenes and characters – connections which should be preserved in translation. As dialogue between characters gathers pace, he often splits a single line of verse between two or three speakers, with quick-fire question and answer.
Floreta ¿Qué haces?
Floreta Oye, espera.
Coro Guarda la fiera.
Floreta ¿Qué haré?
Coro Guarda la fiera.
Floreta ¡Lindo consuelo!
Floreta What are you doing?
Clarín Running away.
Floreta Hey, wait!
Coro Watch out for the beast!
Floreta What shall I do?
Coro Watch out for the beast.
Floreta Nice idea!
So the first challenge is to fit so much meaning into just a few syllables, line-by-line.
Hidalgo’s Spanish baroque musical style is based on the lively rhythms of popular songs and dances, accompanied by strumming guitars, harps and percussion. There is a lot of triple metre, rocking to and fro between hemiola and tripla, and many, many syncopations. The basic pattern accents the second beat of the bar. This requires the translator to match Calderón’s metric patterns of Good and Bad syllables very closely indeed, on almost every syllable of every line.
Calderón and Hidalgo join forces to create exquisitely balanced pairs of lines:
Pocris por quien muera,
Aura por quien vivo.
Pocris, for whom I die/ Aura for whom I live. Here, a translator has not only to translate line by line and metrically, but also preserve the balance and contrast of the verse-pair.
But perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is Calderón’s refrain texts, the famous mottos. These recur, and must be translated consistently. But Hidalgo sets them polyphonically, with rhythmic variants in different voices. And sometimes he sets the same motto text to a completely different melody, even in a different metre. Tony Trippet’s polished English motto-translations were not singable – this was not his purpose. But for our Russian production, we had to render the mottos not only consistently, but line-by-line, metrically, and as elegantly as possible, whilst ensuring that the same text would work for all Hidalgo’s varied settings of it. It had already been decided that the opera would be presented under the adapted, short title Любовь Убивает (Love Kills). But the title is sung many times during Act III, as the final words of one of Calderón’s motto-refrains, so we also had to reconcile the original meaning with the chosen short title.
Both Calderón and Hidalgo employ varying registers (literary, and musical) for the noble and comic characters, who often interact in the same scene. Whilst seeking to imitate Calderón’s simplicity of language throughout, Katerina Antonenko-King also sought to match his shifts in register, with more elegant vocabulary or rougher words, according to the character of each role. At appropriate moments, Calderón even introduces poetic cliches and homespun phrases:
Aura me hiela y me abrasa,
Aura makes me freeze and burn.
¡Y luego dirán que no hay
a perro viejo tustuses!
And then they’ll say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! This approximate English translation demonstrates the point: a literal translation would be unfamiliar, hard to understand, and certainly wouldn’t create the laugh that Calderón is trying for.
Our absolute priority, in line with historical aesthetics, was that the audience should understand the words. This required us to choose the simplest possible words for the required meaning, just as Calderón himself did. Hidalgo’s music required us to preserve the original meaning line-by-line, and the original metre syllable by syllable. Calderón’s mottos required especial care. We made a deliberate choice to avoid antiquarian language, to adopt a modern idiom that would be understood by our young audience. Nevertheless, we respected Calderón’s careful variation in poetic register, from elevated speech for the gods to rough barking from the clown. Sometimes these multiple demands were simply irreconcilable: where necessary, we made small changes to the music, in order to set the best possible Russian text. In this too, we followed the historical aesthetic, that in this style, the music is the servant of the words.
Katerina and I worked together. She is responsible for the Russian, as well as for some literary insights into Calderón’s witty treatment of the ancient myths. My duty was to care for Calderón’s Spanish and Hidalgo’s music (in that order of priority). Our work is not perfect: no translation can be perfect. But we approached the task with a clear set of priorities, in order to give audiences the best possible understanding of the drama as it happens before their eyes, and the best possible experience of the rhythms of Spanish music, as they listen. No doubt some readers of Calderón in flowery literary translations will be disappointed by the simplicity of language required for effective communication on stage: they might even be disappointed by the original, for Calderón was a master of elegant simplicity:
Esta, hermosa Diana … es Aura
“This, beautiful Diana… is Aura.” So Calderón begins his complex drama by introducing the two protagonists, in Spanish that would not trouble a first-year student. Katerina rendered this as “Это, царица Диана … та Аура” [Eto, czarina Diana… ta Aura] “This, queen Diana… that’s Aura]. Even with my limited Russian, I can understand this, and the opening word Это matches the original Esta almost perfectly.
I look forward to observing how our young (and not so young) audiences react to the show. So far, Calderón’s earthy humour has raised genuine belly-laughs, and his tragic drama has inspired strong emotions: if we can acheive this, we have succeeded.
Of course, there is another kind of translation, which we have chosen not to attempt. A fine poet can create in his own language a parallel work, not a slavish translation, but a re-imagining of the original in another language, in another culture, in another aesthetic. Such a work can be a thing of great beauty, but it would not meet the requirements of this particular production. I consider that the role of opera translators is not to present their own gusto, but rather, like a fine actor, to take on the mantle of the original author and convey his, perhaps different, aesthetic. In the 18th century, there was a fashion to ‘improve’ Shakespeare with flowery, more ‘elegant’ language: I do not believe that we should translate 17th-century opera libretti in this way.
After all, the world’s most famous line of 17th-century verse encapsulates the existential dilemma almost entirely in monosyllables:
To be, or not to be – that is the Question
Who could ever improve on such elegant simplicity? On the other hand, who would ever want to be faced with translating Hamlet into modern Russian, whilst preserving syllable by syllable every metrical twist of Shakeseare’s iambic pentameters??? Something is always lost in translation: the translator’s choice is what to attempt to preserve.