José Mª Usandizaga /
Gregorio Martínez Sierra
(María Lejárraga)

La llama

(Kursaal Auditorium. Donostia, March 21, 2015)

reviewed by Mario Lerena

La llama (vocal score)

This year marks the centenary of the death of José María Usandizaga, the young Donostian composer, who in a mere twenty-eight years traced one of the most brilliant careers in Spanish music. Two remarkable stage works, Mendi-mendiyan (1910) and Las golondrinas (1914), sufficed to see him hailed as the golden hope for Basque opera and Spanish music theatre in his time. Both can be heard this season in his home city, in a commemorative program on which a number of local institutions have joined forces. However, nothing has generated such expectation as the planned revival of his posthumous opera La llama (‘The Flame’) premiered in San Sebastián during 1918 and revived just three times since - the latest, no less than sixty-two years ago!

So all credit to the management of the Basque National Orchestra ­– and in particular the conductor Juan José Ocón – for their effort to fight for the revival of a cultural artefact of such strong symbolic as well as artistic value. Fortunately their project will transcend the usual ‘circuit’ – Bilbao, Vitoria and Pamplona, ​​in addition to their headquarters in Donostia – thanks to a recording, made on the day of the concert reviewed here. Having said which, it is a pity that this revival has not carried the idea through to its logical conclusion by respecting the integrity of this operatic rarity, whose musico-dramatic shape is disfigured here by cuts of varying size, which hinders enjoyment and comprehension. The loss of a whole scene from the first act plus several other passages has maimed this ‘concert version’ which, despite its ample size, cannot completely satisfy the appetite of true aficionados.

What’s certain, is that La llama is a grandiose work of boundless ambition, that synthesizes the best of its composer’s genius and his little weaknesses, with that magical combination of artifice and candour, so characteristic of the child prodigy anxious to dazzle. Sensing no doubt that his creative drive far exceeded his fragile life energy, Usandizaga busily deploys an exciting amalgam of emotions in extremity, as the chorus makes clear at the beginning of the first scene of the Prologue (“... let it be long, new, sad; love, sorrow, laughter, death ...”).

On top of that I would say that this work embodies to a large extent the spirit and dreams of an entire era of ephemeral splendour: that Belle Époque that truly found one of its last refuges in elitist San Sebastián. We can see this in the oriental exoticism with which the score overflows, and in the constant allegorical and symbolist features of the libretto, very much in the spirit of its time. In a remote, Caucasian kingdom, the girl Tamar awaits her nightly reunion with her beloved Prince Adrián, but a Turkish ambush upsets the couple’s hopes, dragging them into a destructive spiral of fiery passions which – like the flame to which the title refers – consumes their human hearts.

Without straying from the contemporary Basque cultural environment, we find very similar patterns in the symphonic poems of the Bilbao composer Andrés Isasi (specifically Zharufa and El Oráculo, both from 1913); in the fauvist paintings of Francisco Iturrino, who toured Andalusia and the Maghreb with his friend Matisse seeking inspiration; or in the flaming arabesques that decorate many Art Nouveau facades and interiors. Even Jesús Guridi (fellow pupil of Usandizaga at the Schola Cantorum in Paris) was to explore the territory, though with less success, in his 1931 zarzuela La cautiva. At root these are the same kind of themes and environments explored in much lighter tone in successful zarzuelas such as La corte de Faraón (1910) and El asombro de Damasco (1918).

Art nouveau frontage in Donostia

On this occasion, as with Las golondrinas, Usandizaga relied on the supportive collaborative of the Rioja playwright María Lejárraga, hidden as usual under the signature of her husband, Gregorio Martínez Sierra. Her task here was to construct a chain of suggestive fantasy scenes, where the tragic and the trivial join hands to show off the composer’s brilliance, for example in the delightful chorus of odalisques (or Wagnerian flower-maidens?) which precede the fatal denouement of the third act.

Lejárraga’s plot is in effect formally ordered as a fabulous meta-narrative, in the style of The Arabian Nights, promoting epic, choreographic and visual spectacle over storyline. She probably sensed that opera’s creative days of romantic, melodramatic verismo were numbered – something that Puccini himself, so admired by Usandizaga, seems to have realized in the last phase of his career with another unfinished Eastern tale, Turandot. Although the author’s talents are rarely recognized without qualification in her librettos, and despite the unconcealed clichés she employs, the result is a fine text, deeply expressive and full of the kind of theatrical opportunities rarely offered to music theatre.

Of course stories of Islamic captivity had a long tradition in European literature, including such well-known examples in comic opera as Die Entführung aus dem Serail and L’italiana in Algeri. A century before Usandizaga, another French-trained Basque, Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, had essayed a similar argument in his ill-starred comic opera Los esclavos felices. In fact, the clash between antagonistic cultures – conventionally polarized as East versus West and feminine versus masculine – is a universal theme from The Iliad to Parsifal, and still painfully very much present in daily newspaper reports. Interestingly also, the French-Basque tradition of Suletine-dialect pastorals are articulated through a Manichean opposition between Christians and Turks (türkak).

These archetypes were enriched by Lejárraga with other topical and recurrent elements from her personal, poetic world – we should not forget that in this same year, 1915, she wrote the ‘Song of the will-o-the-wisp’ in El amor brujo for Manuel de Falla, and began to fabricate the opera Jardín de Oriente with Joaquín Turina. Particularly striking is the unusual and touching portrait of the two, opposed female protagonists, where the ‘good girl’ is far more ambiguous than expected, while the ‘femme fatale’ fascinates through the reality and power of her obsessive love.

La Llama 1918 (Source: Archivo Eresbil)

No wonder that critics at the time immediately recognized the kinship of La llama with the aesthetics of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (which had recently performed in the Basque Country, and which the Martínez Sierras as well as Usandizaga had been following since their Paris years). The protagonist’s name in La llama, Tamar, matches the poem Tamara, Balakirev, the Russian company had choreographed in 1912 [ed. in addition, the English composer Arnold Bax had written his full-length ballet Tamara in 1911 for the Ballet Ruses]. In Usandizaga’s music, such material had already made its appearance in the ‘fantasy-dance’ Hassan y Melihah (1912) – which the Spanish feminist writer Margarita Nelken even compared with Stravinsky’s Petrushka – and they are almost ubiquitous in the score of this posthumous work. To cite just one example, it is impossible not to recall the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor in the final apotheosis of the second act.

Along with this Russian-Eastern influence, we can also detect light, impressionistic brush strokes: the sunset in the Sultan’s garden Sultan is worthy of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. And above all, we can trace Straussian influences in the complex web of contrapuntal lines and instrumental effects. Indeed these nods to Richard Strauss extend to the climax of the libretto, where the odalisque Aisa, a reframed Salome, hugs the body of the unresponsive beloved, whom she has killed.

In short, the composer and librettist attempt to impress us with a sophisticated and eclectic compendium of what used to be defined, without ambiguity or scepticism, as ‘modernism’. This cosmopolitan spirit predictably aroused the suspicions and even outraged nationalist voices here and there, always attentive to concerns of national identity. Perhaps for this reason, many commentators took care to emphasize the Basque inspiration of various passages in the score, especially those that characterize the supposedly ‘Christian’ characters (such as Tamar’s beautiful theme, “Noche misteriosa”, with its unmistakable if imprecise popular flavour).

Advert - La voz de su amo (1918)On the other hand, the work certainly satisfied the supporters of more maverick and iconoclastic art, because – fortunately! – not for a moment do María or Joshemari [ed. Basque colloquial for ‘José María’] seem willing to renounce in any way their audience’s pleasure or their own. In fact, La llama perceptibly approaches – in a slightly sublimated, but certainly conscious way – to the best tradition of the romantic zarzuela grande, with a clarity and breadth of melodic lines which Usandizaga had rarely attained before. So if the orchestral introduction to the first act has traces of Arab-Andalusian zambra, in the manner of Turina, the third-act love duet can be compared for its lyricism with Salud and Paco’s in La vida breve (which Manuel de Falla had presented the previous year in Madrid), as well as some passages in the subsequent zarzuelas of his admiring countryman Pablo Sorozábal, who knew this score well.

When all is said and done, there are obvious difficulties in doing justice to La llama quite apart from its scenic apparatus, as a work which was rightly described at the time as a “mosaic which seems to have tried to gather all that’s gimmicky and dazzling from every artistic field”. On this occasion, there was virtually no compromise in this regard by its interpreters, who fulfilled their task whilst respecting all the rigid, formal protocols of the concert hall. This, coupled to the fragmentary nature of the revival, made me fear at times that we would be in receipt of a cold case of museum samples, like a disjointed, beautiful but ruined necklace of gems. Fortunately the initial ice was melted, thanks to the brilliance of the score and a superb cast which reasserted the exceptional quality of the local product.

La Llama, Miramón 2015

The seamless strength of the male singers was particularly noteworthy. They were impressive at all registers, from the robust bass Damián del Castillo, as the Sultan, through baritone Fernando Latorre, most flexible in his dual role of The Oracle and Death. The tenor Mikeldi Atxalabandobaso presented an exemplary Prince Adrián whose third act aria (“La noche nos prometía las delicias del amor”) was the climax of the evening, a challenge met with tonal clarity and impeccable taste.

Beside them, the soprano Sabina Puértolas went through her paces well to breathe life into her sensual Tamar, in an excellently coloured exercise of vocal and dramatic characterization, remarkable in her second-act song of seduction (“La tierra donde he nacido es paraíso de amor”). Miren Maruri did justice to the powerful role of Aisa, with her warm and well-projected mezzo-soprano.

As The Storyteller, young Miren Urbieta faced the challenge of lighting the touch-paper at the beginning of the Prologue, flaunting her beautiful voice in top notes of genuine virtuosity. It was certainly the first pleasant surprise, and one can only regret the cuts imposed on her scene, fleeting enough as it is. Less impressive were Elena Barbé, who played the Water Spirit with dignity, but without shining in the coloratura agility the score requires; and inevitably Xabier Anduaga, whose Jailer was reduced in this version to a mere bit part.

Alongside these soloists, the well-established and always meritorious Coral Andra Mari from Rentería – with their director José Manuel Tife among the ranks – showed security and richness in their important and effective appearances, the women in particular well able to make the best of their moments of brilliance. The Basque National Orchestra, under Ocón’s firm hand, sounded unanimous and precise, albeit excessively loud, inattentive to the requirements of voices and generally poorly sensitive to the wealth of timbres and sonic landscapes Usandizaga puts into play, precisely entrusting as he does much of the weight of his opera to the instrumental writing.

Beyond these critical considerations, the composer’s originality shone through overwhelmingly at the end of the work, whose last scene simply takes the breath away with its dramatic intensity and febrile pathos. That is the final proof that the effort was worthwhile, and that the singular fire of this Flame is still able to catch the souls of today’s audience. This hearing, at least, the packed great hall of San Sebastián’s Kursaal (for the second consecutive day) applauded with emotion and respect an event memorable by any light.

Ay! for whoever lights the flame
with sparks of hope;
Ay! for whoever lights the torch
forgetting the wind ...

© Mario Lerena, 2015

Cast: Sabina Puértolas; Mikeldi Atxalabandabaso; Damián del Castillo; Miren Urbieta; Elena Barbé; Fernando Latorre; Maite Maruri; Xabier Anduaga. Coral Andra Mari Abesbatza (dir. José Manuel Tife), Basque National Orchestra, c. Juan José Ocón.

Critical edition by Juan José Ocón (score) and Manuel Cabrera (libretto), commissioned by the Basque National Orchestra.

La llama (2015) programme

en español