This blog comes to you from the classy surroundings of the Opera Europa conference, held this year at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The place is quite magnificent: in the rebuild after a devastating fire in 1994, the architects have combined the highly gilt decorative splendour of a traditional 19th century opera house with all the technology and amenities of a modern theatre, in a space that is generous. Coming here was an experience not to be missed.

I'll write more about the conference in a later blog [now published], but one of the most interesting parts was in the closing address by Gérard Mortier (the highly influential director of the Opéra National de Paris), where he described the tension between opera as “music drama” and opera as a beautiful spectacle designed to entertain an affluent audience in a diverting, escapist way. Mortier traces the tension back to the birth of opera, with Monteverdi's espousal of “drama per musica” contrasted with the style of "opera as a beautiful spectacle" popularised at the court of Louis XIV of France with composers like Lully. It’s a tension which still exists today, with the dramatic school having progressed through Wagner to edgy, disturbing works such as Wozzeck or Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (the sort of medicine you can't necessarily cope with after a long day at the office) and the well-heeled “beautiful spectacle” school being happier with reruns of La Traviata or The Magic Flute.

On the first evening of the conference, we were treated to the dress rehearsal of Enric Palomar’s new opera “La Cabeza del Bautista” (The Head of John the Baptist), based on an “espertento”, a Spanish style of drama designed “to give a bitter aroma”. There’s no question about which side of the drama/escapism barrier this falls into. It’s a nasty, frightening story of a son who has (allegedly) murdered his mother and framed his father for the murder. The father has fled South America to return to Spain and set himself up as the owner of a tavern in the company of a young sexpot, where the son tracks him down to blackmail him. For those few of you lucky enough to be able to make the trip to Barcelona, I won’t spoil the story, but this is gritty, horrifying material, and dramatically executed to the highest degree: I felt the same level of troubled intensity as I did going to Athol Fugard’s Dimetos in the theatre a few weeks earlier, but taken to greater heights by the characterisation in the singing and in Palomar’s score: sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, but always with a sense of pace that drove the narrative. It’s the painting of the characters that impresses: Palomar and his director/librettist Carlos Wagner are ambivalent about all of them, from the three protagonists to the brilliant cameo of the blind beggar who disturbs the equanimity of the tavern where the action occurs. The work is very much a tribute to Strauss’s Salome (see one of my previous blogs), and is indeed described in the promotional literature and the work's title as a re-telling of the Salome/John the Baptist story; having said this, in my opinion, the work stood on its own two feet perfectly well without consideration of this.

To those who wish that opera development had ceased with Puccini, Mortier points out that although the 19th century may have produced a huge volume of great opera, a lot of it was from hard-working composers like Donizetti who churned out a high output without significant change or advance in the form: he argues that the 20th century produced a higher number of individually significant works.

Now let’s be clear. I love the delicious Victoriana of La Traviata dearly, and I’m delighted to have an evening of escape with beautiful voices accompanied by a lush orchestra singing lovely, transcendent tunes that I can remember when I leave the building. But this is an experience of a completely different nature, and I left the opera house thoughtful and somewhat shaken, as I have been after the best straight theatre. If this is what 21st century opera is going to be like, I want to see more of it.

20th April 2009

Photos by A. Bofill, reprinted by kind permission of the Gran Teatre del Liceu