Six years after its commission by Gerard Mortier, La Ciudad de las Mentiras (City of Lies) is at last "a dream come true". Spanish composer Elena Mendoza and German librettist and stage director Matthias Rebstock have teamed up again to recreate the captivating literary universe of Juan Carlos Onetti. The result is an hermetic piece of contemporary theatre that is at the same time a disappointing opera but worthy musical exploration of the imaginary city of Santa María.

The choice of the texts that sustains Rebstock’s libretto could not be more inviting: four superb short stories that introduce the reader into the vast fictional world that Onetti developed in his longer, better-known novels, such as Juntacadáveres or El Astillero. The one that wraps up the rest, A Dream Come True, tells the story of a mysterious woman who commissions a play based on a dream, which she wants to stage for no other audience than herself. Rebstock takes this inspiring idea as a starting point and cuts the stories into small pieces of action that happen simultaneously, producing total confusion for those who do not know Onetti’s work, but creating for the initiated interesting interplay between the stories. The central character in each is a woman, depicted as an exotic object, obscure to the masculine characters that imagine her with juvenile fantasy. The women in Santa María trigger the action and disrupt the city’s ordinary life, but they are always puzzling outsiders whose traits are only revealed by the male voices around, a paradox that is even enhanced in Mendoza and Riebstock’s version.

Mendoza’s music is based on constant exploration of sound and clear intention of developing new musical textures, playing with instruments' most unconventional possibilities. Dense explosions of sound surrounded brief fragments of each story, carefully characterised with a certain colour, rhythm or instrument. The orchestra, conducted by Titus Engel, was distributed in the pit and the royal box (with an interesting surrounding effect), but many of the soloists were on stage and took part in the action, notably accordionist Anne Landa in the part of Carmen, the seductive women in The Album, and viola player Anna Spina as Moncha, The Stolen Bride. These two instrumentalists depict their respective characters as if voice and obbligato of a traditional aria had merged. It is precisely in The Stolen Bride where Mendoza shows her most accomplished timbres, thanks to the dialogue between the viola and the piano, played plucking the strings directly with the sounding board wide open, creating the impression of a bottomless well.

Mendoza embraces Onetti and tries to translate every detail of the text into a musical experience: the newspaper in Hell Most Feared is transformed into a radio commentary on the news of Santa María; the cards played at the bar are dominoes, used to create a joyful percussion scene. But the most beautiful musical transformation is Carmen’s suitcase in The Album, where she keeps in secret the postcards from all her travels that captivate Jorge because he thinks they are all amazing lies. In the opera, the suitcase is an accordion, played during the performance as a percussion instrument, as if her stories were just echoes of what is inside. When Jorge opens the suitcase at the end and, disappointed, discovers the final lie (everything was true), the accordion starts playing normally, as if the hidden music was at the same time fiction and reality. 

This wealth of musical resources does not correspond, unfortunately, by a true exploration of the vocal and singing possibilities. Most of the text was read aloud emphatically, disconnected from the orchestra. The sung voice was rarely used, in scattered phrases, that normally started with a long note and ended in a spoken phrase. This poor use of the voice, one of the most powerful vehicles of expression and meaning in opera, prevented, unlike Carmen and Moncha, a deeper characterisation of the woman from A Dream Come True and Gracia, from Hell Most Feared.

Seen as a whole, Mendoza’s score is appealing but fragmentary: it is hard to find a narrative thread that connects all those small instrumental achievements, that swing too much between abstraction and banal literality. In some moments of the opera, her music succeeds at constructing an abstract and static evocation of Onetti’s Santa María, but it just does not fit into the complex and dynamic storytelling of the text.

In his double role as librettist and director Ribstock has created, more than a classic libretto, a script, a succession of scenes that happen on stage but that do not contribute to an overall dramatic discourse. He is clearly inspired by multidisciplinary theatre, mixing mime and improvisation with more conventional dramatic forms, but he does not show a polished and recognisable style as a director. Each character was constructed with a different, almost dissonant, theatrical code, adding to the general sense of fragmentation. Bettina Meyer’s effective set dimly suggests the architecture of a city, in which different levels divide the segments of the action. Sopranos Katia Guedes and Laia Falcón were not able to prove their vocal qualities in the brief vocal parts. Guillermo Anzorena was more convincing dramatically and his light baritone matched the character of Langman. Graham Valentine’s sardonic Dr Diaz Grey was a true revelation.

Trying to tell many stories with little narrative and sew too much clothing with little thread, La Ciudad de las Mentiras leaves a vague feeling of disappointment. As the play in A Dream Come True, it can be seen as a sophisticated, self-contained artefact that may not even need an audience to exist and fulfil its artistic purpose. However, this passionate immersion into Santa María was worth the lie.