Lightning may never strike twice, but Sheffield University have followed up their beautiful production of La púrpura de la rosa (2003, reviewed here) with a staging of Calderón and court-harpist Hidalgo’s even more ambitious sister opera Celos aun del aire matan (“Jealousy, even of air, kills”). Both were written around 1660 to celebrate the marriage of the Infanta María Teresa to Louis XIV of France, partly to show the French that anything they could do, Spain could do better; partly, as the eminent musicologist Louise Stein demonstrated in an engrossing lecture given at the University on the afternoon of the performance, to provide sophisticated erotic allegories to urge the young couple to their marital duties; but partly also to satisfy the Madrid court’s taste for “girlie shows”, featuring the actresses and singers who provided erotic servicing for their masculine needs.
Stein has demonstrated that Calderón based his plots on a pair of Veronese paintings in Philip IV’s collection; Venus and Adonis for Púrpura, Cephalus and Procris for Celos. Both include low comedy as well as high tragedy, but the playwright’s treatment of the Procris story is the more elaborate and subtle, a beautiful formal game which Hidalgo sets in a fluid pattern of recitative and strophic songs, swinging along in mostly triple-time Spanish dance rhythms. There are fewer set pieces in Celos than in Torrejon’s recasting of the Púrpura score from Hidalgo’s lost original. Instead melodic repetitions, sequential writing and simple harmonies build up a motoric dynamism, almost minimalist in its hypnotic power. Its quality is not like anything else in stage music – English operas by Blow and Purcell are closer to it than Italian or French equivalents – but despite its success there was to be no successor. The two Calderón through-written operas exist in an aesthetic bubble of time, though the dance songs for the comedy characters (seguidillas and jácara) are of a type familiar from the zarzuela tradition.
This British premiere, first staged in the University Drama Studio during February, was revived for a single performance in the impressive mid-Victorian Gothic setting of St John’s Ranmoor, sans sets and lighting but fully costumed, acted and danced, with a small but incisive instrumental group under the modern Hidalgo, harp virtuoso Andrew Lawrence-King. As with Púrpura, his musicianship inspired the mainly student cast to scale improbable heights, keeping them fleet-footed and clear-headed despite the complexity of the material. Though I’d think at least twice before describing the result as a “girlie show”, there can be no doubt that all this youthful spirit channelled through the fluid, physical grace of Jane Davidson’s balletic direction, evoked a true sense of authenticity. It’s a rare joy to be so effortlessly transported back in time and place.
Clever casting made the most of the vocal talent available, more so than in the pompous, Italianate and musically misguided Teatro Real Madrid revival from 2000. Alexandra Ward’s Diana, as much Goth as Goddess, was a commanding vengeful villainess. Her Act 3 scene with the Furies, where Hidalgo shows Diana’s moral degeneration by breaking her out of the dignified recitative associated with the Gods, into the strophic simplicity associated with the Gross Mortals, produced a surprising sense of shock. Laura Packer and Jessica Walkinshaw, her disruptive masculine victims, sang strongly as well as sweetly, and acted with gentle sincerity. Rosie Williamson’s Pocris was a pastel study in jealous disillusion, her moving death dúo with Packer’s excellent Céfalo a model of restraint, sensitively staged to mirror the Veronese painting. Chloe Saywell’s Aura, the airy nymph whose death and transfiguration provide the mainspring of Calderón’s plot, was as delicate in vocal strength as in physique.
Coming to the low-lifers, Lauren Hart’s posturing Clarín made plenty of the score’s hit number, a catchy jácara revealing the character’s sneering, sensual nastiness. The one significant male role is Diana’s clownish gardener Rústico, who spends much of time changed into a dog: Gareth Lloyd made a suitably good-humoured and lumpen fist of it. The smaller roles had all been prepared with loving care, the choral contributions were short but telling. Their enthusiastically precise cries of “¡fuego!” during Act 2’s set-piece finale, the burning of Diana’s temple, proved specially effective.
Celos is a long and difficult score, and abridgement was inevitable: Rústico’s “nymph of the back-stairs” wife, Floreta (warmly done by Sarah Graves) was perhaps the chief sufferer. Lawrence-King and his distinguished colleague Joan Manuel Chouciño Bazán papered over the cracks with delicious harp interludes, underscoring narrations from Adam Youssefbeygi as the pen-in-hand author (shades of the Cervantes of El huésped del Sevillano!) This solution at least did away with the perceived need for surtitles, but despite the actor’s capable delivery I found the result more distracting than helpful. Calderón’s rich poetic text may be impenetrable to all but specialist Spanish scholars, but with the singers well-schooled by Anthony Trippett and Paul Jordan, meaning and situation were surely sufficiently conveyed by the action, aided by Lawrence-King’s clear synopsis.
This marks the end of a three-production special project, with Anthony Trippett as Project Director, which has been funded in part by an AHRC fellowship grant. Aside from the two operas, the project has borne fruit in a programme based around the first modern revival of the earliest Spanish oratorio, Oratorio sacro al nacimiento de Christo Señor Nuestro, in Sheffield Cathedral. Further performances of Celos aun del aire matan will take place in Dublin later this year, and perhaps elsewhere. Let’s hope that’s not the end of the Sheffield team’s engagement with 17th century Spanish music theatre. Their ambition has been extraordinary, their achievement not far short of a miracle.
© Christopher Webber 2008
aun del aire matan. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Juan
30 March 2008