Montsalvatge Babel 46/Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges – Gran Teatre del Liceu (16 February)

Babel 46

Aristide – Vicente Ombuena
Berta – Ana Inbarra
Joao – Enrique Baquerizo
Clyde – Francisco Vas
Virginia – Mireia Pintó
Urraca – Itxaro Mentxaka
Marquesa de Thiviers – Raquel Pierotti
David – David Menédez
Aarón – David Rubiera
Laurinha – Ramata Koite

L’enfant et les sortilèges

The Child – Silvia Tro Santafé
Mama / Shepherd – Raquel Pierotti
The Chair / The Owl – Ana Ibarra
The Chinese Cup – Ana Häsler
The Fire / The Nightingale – Milgros Poblador
The Princess – Marisol Montalvo
The White Cat – Gemma Coma-Alabert
The Dragonfly – Marisa Martins
The Bat / Shepherdess – Olatz Saitua
The Squirrel – Claudia Schneider
The Armchair / The Tree – Enric Serra
The Clock / The Black Cat – Olivier Grand
The Teapot / Arithmetic / Frog – Francisco Vas

Chorus and Orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceu
Antoni Ros-Marbà

Director – Jorge Lavelli
Design – Agostino Pace
Costumes – Francesco Zito
Lighting – Dominique Brugière

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 16 February, 2004
Venue: Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

This premiere performance of this rather curious double bill, a co-production with the Teatro Real Madrid, offered a rare opportunity to see Xavier Montsalvatge’s opera with the better-known if not regularly staged Ravel.

Babel 46 was composed in the 1960s although first performed in 1994 in a chamber version, and later that year with the full orchestral score heard on this occasion. The title derives from the year of the setting – 1946 – and the fact that each of the characters sings in their own language, a modern day Babel. The location is a transit camp just after the war where the various inmates are awaiting imminent repatriation. All of them, with the exception of the naïve Sicilian Aristide, have woven elaborate stories to hide their true identities or status in an attempt to foster relationships and a social hierarchy within the camp.

The major drama lies in the relationship of the Italian Berta and Aristide whom she seduces one evening in the first scene of the opera. She later repulses him although it is now evident that he has fallen hopelessly in her thrall. When she rejects and insults him in the opera’s third scene he drinks and becomes violent, attacking most of the other inmates, including the young speech-impaired girl from Mozambique, Laurinha, who cares for her blind musician father Joao. This alienates him from most of the other inmates who previously have tended to sympathise more with him than her.

As their travel permits are issued the true identities and natures of all the inmates and their lies are revealed. The Marquesa turns out to be penniless whilst the two pious Castilian sisters, Virginia and Uracca, suddenly appear dressed in much finery and announce they have hired a jeep to take them home. Berta finally admits to Aristide that she has a husband and children, and wishes to return to them. Only Aristide has been honest and finally, as they all leave, he takes his own life and is found dead by the young Laurinha.

The music is most attractive and with much variety within the orchestration and the vocal lines attractive and lyrical. There is a little spoken dialogue; some of it accompanied. Each of the characters is well differentiated from a musical perspective – the relationship of Berta and Aristide is depicted in strong, direct and almost verismo language. Since much of their interaction forms the meat of the piece this is the dominant style, but in some ways the music is rather cinematic with some abrupt changes of gear as each of the characters make their contribution to the drama.

There are many moments in the score when the various characters sing folk songs or play music from their own countries – again with distinct accompaniment from the orchestra. These include the melancholy and lamenting trumpet playing of Joao, the mournful Jewish songs of David and Aarón, and the more refined French songs of the Marquesa.

The vocal and dramatic performances were very persuasive – with Ana Ibarra in particular displaying a strong, rich and high mezzo and bags of temperament. Enrique Baquerizo sang the part of Joao in a resonant bass and Raquel Pierotti the Marquesa’s flighty music with aplomb. The role of the Scottish Bridge-playing and cycling-enthusiast Andrew Clyde is almost entirely a spoken role – here delivered in a not very Scottish accent by Francisco Vas.

In the role of Aristide the tenor Vicente Ombuena delivered with a ringing tenor tone but at a somewhat relentlessly loud volume, perhaps rendering this character more conventionally operatic than should be the case. After all, I think his is the character that should retain our sympathies – he remains the most honest and is the unwitting victim, through naivety, of the others’ lies and fabrications.

The staging was quite straightforward – set in a courtyard of grey buildings surrounded by high walls and several telegraph towers with tannoys. Very good lighting mirrored some of the orchestral depictions of dawn and sunset. Babel 46 is a most attractive piece, and one worthy of revival – and as it exists in a chamber format it might be an interesting piece for music colleges to consider mounting.

After the interval there was a complete change of mood as we leapt into Colette and Ravel’s surrealist work about the naughty child being tormented by all the furniture and furnishings, pets, and characters from mutilated books that he has hurt or destroyed in a fit of pique. The staging was delightful with Silvia Tro Santafé’s diminutive, sparky and engagingly-sung Child looking very small against large tables, chairs, cats, and a gigantic mother as the curtain opened. The dancing of the huge damaged chairs and the frenetic running of the grandfather clock with broken pendulum was very wittily done, and I particularly liked the way the furniture all arranged itself at the side of the stage after its starring few minutes. There was a wonderful moment when a small chair made itself comfortable on the big armchair at this point. The duetting teapot and Chinese cup had just the right feeling of exoticism and abandon in their dance, and the “shocking” duet of the amorous cats took place tastefully behind a red screen – much flashing of furry tails and whiskers.

The cast was huge, with a small army of shepherds and shepherdesses descending from the torn wallpaper, and a whole classroom of schoolchildren being tormented by Francisco Vas’s high-tenor Mr Arithmetic. There were also some excellent vocal performances – particularly from the coloratura soprano Milgros Poblador who sang a technically dazzling Fire (her fabulous red-orange flame costume taking up the whole stage) and a very self-important trilling nightingale – definitely the Prima Donna of the birds in the wood! The amorous cats were meowed alluringly by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike Gemma Coma-Alabert and a big furry Olivier Grand.

The costuming was very witty and the chorus, like the soloists, seemed to be enjoying themselves. Orchestrally, Ravel’s delightful, humorous and colourful score rose from the pit with enormous clarity and persuasive drive and panache under the baton of the theatre’s music director Antoni Ros-Marbà.

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