After several major commissions to well-established Spanish composers (Mauricio Sotelo, Elena Mendoza), the Teatro Real has turned to small-scale projects in alternative venues, this time in the lovely Teatro Español. Je suis narcissiste is the latest production by Òpera de Butxaca i Nova Creació, a Catalan venture that promotes contemporary opera. Raquel García-Tomás, who has co-authored several chamber operas (the last of them, disPLACE, also staged at the Teatro Real, dealt with gentrification and evictions), has chosen for this new creation a comic plot. Clotilde, a cultural manager goes into therapy after a horrible day that started with the death of her cat and ended with the funeral of her boyfriend, who died after a petite mort inflicted by one of his many lovers. The story is a succession of short flashbacks and closed scenes that present narcissism as a pervasive pathology of society in general, and the world of art in particular.

The opera is subtitled as a “contemporary opera buffa, ma non troppo”. It is true that it is a mild comedy that always stops at the vitriol's edge, but maybe what “non troppo” is qualifying is the adjective “contemporary”, as neither the topic nor the music are particularly modern. Narcissism was an issue long before it became an issue (from Ovid to Christopher Lasch) and Helena Tornero’s playful libretto hints only vaguely at the digital mutations of the selfish virus. Even more frustratingly, the opera cleverly sets the stage for a final shot at the male-dominated Freudian definition of narcissism, personified in the “mansplainer” shrink, but that blast never comes. A final monologue by the nurse sets the moral compass of the work, presenting mutual care and empathy as remedies to the egotistic plague, but the inspired impromptu feels disconnected and doesn’t really bite.

García-Tomás, a prolific composer with an interesting corpus of electronic music, has made a surprising choice for this chamber opera. She seems to have avoided the challenge of creating a score with its own musical language, as if comedy couldn’t be self-referential and needed to interplay with digested musical styles. The score is a pastiche of references and quotes (from Rossini to Poulenc and Adès) and an incidental combination of musical clichés and recognisable styles, notably Romantic opera and music hall. Closed musical numbers are loosely connected by recitatives with piano, in the best tradition of comic zarzuela or revue. The lack of a unique musical voice may be disappointing from a purely aesthetic perspective, but it truly serves the humorous purposes of the libretto, as in the elevator scene, when Clotilde finds out about her boyfriend’s multiple lovers.

Marta Pazos’ staging proves to be the best ally of the plot. Using a basic and bright colour palette and neutral sets, designed by Fernando Ribeiro, she gracefully negotiated the continuous flashbacks of the libretto and underlined all the comic effects of the story, even adding the spicy touch that was sometimes lacking in the story. The characters were depicted iconically, almost as absurd archetypes, thanks to Pier Paolo Álvaro’s characterisation, with clever farcical touches such as the lovers’ costumes at the funeral, made of wreaths, or the red phone worn as a purse by Clotilde, an instant reference to Almodóvar’s free version of La Voix humaine in his 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

The vocal cast was superb and ended up being the most solid pillar of the performance. Elena Copons' rich and ringing soprano proved adequate to the eclectic vocal writing, which combined exposed high notes, long melodies, recitatives and spoken parts. With good diction, her detached and ironic attitude added to the general comic tone while preserving the centrality of her subjective point of view. Toni Marsol sang correctly the part of Giovanni, the phony therapist, but didn’t quite find the satirical nerve of the character. On the other hand Joan Ribalta’s wealth of comical resources, with sharp phrasing and total control of his light tenor, depicted perfectly all the male supporting roles, especially the meek lift attendant. The rest of the female characters were played by María Hinojosa, who excelled in the bel canto passages with powerful voice and strong acting,

The best that can be said about a comedy is that it works and people laugh. But the corrosive core of comedy is its power to say in jest things that cannot be said in earnest. Despite its other virtues, Je suis narcissiste has relinquished that power and has contented with the soft tickle. And laugh we did.