(Credit; Gustavo Mirabile)
Opera Hispánica and Teatro Grattacielo opened their respective seasons 2021-22 on Saturday evening with a unique double program including works by Astor Piazzolla and Manuel de Falla jointly called “Cuando el Fuego Abrasa”.
The production, the first collaboration between the two companies, was directed by Malena Dayen and conducted by Jorge Parodi, who conducted members of the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloists Nancy Fabiola Herrera, baritone Gustavo Feulien and bandoneon Rodolfo Zanetti.
A rare combo
At first glance, the double program, consisting of a series of tangos by Piazzolla and “El Amor Brujo” by De Falla, seemed like an unlikely duet. But in this version, the combinations complement each other. The tangos of the ensemble include “Oblivion”, “Canto de noche y llovizna”, “Melancólica Buenos Aires”, “La misma pena”, “Los pájaros perdidos”, “Preludio para el año 3001” and “Libertango” and they were structured to create a vocal contrast between Feulien and Herrera alternating as Carmelo and Candela, respectively, almost like duels and doomed lovers. This provided a set-up for the story of “Amor Brujo”. This kind of narrative combination does not always work, even in operas and works that are supposed to be thematically related (some productions of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” would do better to leave the two worlds in their own spaces), but it works pretty well here due to Dayen’s subtle choices.
Obviously, the fact that the two works featured the same ensemble, a quartet of tilted mirrors used as spotlights, made the connection stronger, but otherwise we had soft nods in “Amor Brujo” towards moments in the tangos. Perhaps the most powerful was a single gesture – Carmelo gently running his hand over Candela’s face. We see this right at the end of “Oblivion” and a very noticeable reminder is projected on one of the four mirrors halfway through “Amor Brujo”. This moment was particularly profound because in “Oblivion” it was portrayed from the point of view of the character of Carmelo; in “Amor Brujo”, it was clearly the reminiscence of Candela.
But the two contrasting sets visually complemented each other in other ways. The tangos played out as more meditative, with each artist limited in their movement, the lighting and visuals more subdued (there was a brilliant use of lighting to create shadow paths that the actors each crossed in these. last tangos like “Los pájaros perdidos”). Meanwhile, “Bruja” was bursting with fire and energy with Herrera dancing around the stage and projections flying through the mirrors. This stylistic antithesis allowed the works to retain a sense of individuality, but also a strong bond through juxtaposition. Additionally, the fractured nature of the tangos accentuated the thematic disconnect between the two lovers, while the greater flow of “Bruja” reinforced the focus on developing Candela.
As Candela, Herrera was pure fire. International superstar, she has performed in all the major opera houses in the world. She has recorded and performed “Amor Brujo” on several occasions. But she had never performed a staged version of the work, which focuses on Candela searching for a witch cave to birth Carmelo and confront him with her abandonment. I have seen Herrera several times before, especially at the Met in the productions of “Rigoletto” and “Salomé” where his robust and powerful voice was one of the highlights of these performances.
But I had never seen the artistic versatility and brilliance of her in Dayen’s production “Amor Brujo”. What opened my eyes the most was his physical performance, led by a fantastic choreography by Troy Ogilvie. In a dance, she contorted her body; in another, she was driving with her hands; in another, it was her shawl. She moved from one side of the stage, from mirror to mirror, her movements in perfect synchronization with the play of light. We certainly don’t see many international opera superstars pushing those limits. But here’s Herrera, reminding us that opera singers are so much more than we’d expect.
Her vocal performance was equally engaging. His approach to tangos was rather soft and delicate, even in the ascending crescendos of “Los pájaros perdidos”. We could even guess a fragility in the approach, which corresponded to the dramatic situation of Candela losing her love. But when “Amor Brujo” arrived, Herrera seemed to find power, weight and fulfillment in his sound; getting it all done, growing and growing throughout, in conjunction with the choreography, was a testament to her commitment and greatness. This is definitely one of the best simple renditions that I have seen in quite some time.
Feulien’s steadfast baritone also found himself at his peak as the first half went on, with his best moments to come in “Preludio para el año 3001”; there was a robustness to its sound, especially in the high notes. The “Libertango” offered a rather unique challenge to the baritone as it was asked to alternate between quick poetic recitations and vocal lines. In addition, each return of the vocal line pushed the voice into a higher pitch, arguably more and more appealing to the singer at the very end of his major vocal presentation. But Feulien was up to the task, finding more and more vocal power with each iteration; even when he clearly forgot his lines and stumbled through the poetry, he bounced back and delivered the next vocal line with confidence and precision.
Herrera wasn’t the only one to switch from one performance style to another; on the podium, Jorge Parodi alternated between conducting and piano throughout the tangos. Her ensemble never missed a beat and throughout this opening ensemble felt cohesive. Much of the dynamism of this opening set rested on the shoulders (and fingers) of gang player Rodolfo Zanetti, who undeniably stood out throughout. In many ways his role was as much a soloist as that of Feulien and Herrera through the tangos, often in a duet with them.
“Amor Brujo” changed some of the members of the ensemble and brought in winds and brass. While the texture has undeniably changed, Parodi’s ensemble displayed the same level of flexibility throughout De Falla as he moved nimbly from one number to another.
In a conversation following the performance, someone asked how long this production would last. Unfortunately, the answer was that it was an overnight event, a fairly common circumstance in the opera world for many mid-sized companies. In reality, productions like this need and deserve more time, not only to allow artists to continue exploring, but also to invite new audiences to experience it. Hopefully this production gets a chance to travel in the future and engage with these new, unsuspecting audiences. They will leave with an unforgettable memory.