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 Eleanor Alberga, The Letters of One Betrayed (World Premiere):  Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty. Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Friday, 2.10. 2009 (CC)

Analia Torres: Mary Plazas
Priest/El Chofer Loco: Paul Keohone
Eugenio Torres: Jonathan May
Mother Superior/Gloria Cardenes: Arlene Rolph
Luis Torres: Christopher Steele
Camino Torres: Erwan Hughes
José Lopez: Richard Edgar-Wilson

The arrival of new opera to our stages always imparts a certain frisson all of its own. This was my first experience of the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre:  the acoustic struck me as rather dry, but not quite so arid that it detracted massively from the experience.

The pre-concert talk presented a novelty: both composer and librettist of an opera on stage together, and prior to the work’s World Premiere, to boot. Alberga’s opera is a stage adaptation of Isabel Allende’s short story (from The Stories of Eva Luna). Given the opera’s playing time (without the interval) is two hours, that’s quite a feat, because the Allende story is a mere ten pages long. The tale is set in a nameless South American town somewhere in the remote foothills of the Andes mountains, and tells of the struggles of the members of a small community. Analía Torres, an orphan, has been raised in a local convent by the mother Superior there. Isolated, she lives in a world of her own. She has an uncle, Eugenio, who one day visits her (an unusual event for him). Analía is due to inherit land when she comes of age, but he is there to persuade her to hand the property to him. Analía rejects the idea. She herself will take over at eighteen. This causes Eugenio to plot for his son, Luis, to marry Analía and so secure his grip on the land. Luis agrees to at least write to her (or so it seems). Analía receives a stream of beautiful, romantic letters, and Analía falls in love with Luis from afar. When she eventually meets him, she sees he is handsome and they wed, but before long it becomes evident this was a mistake. Luis womanises and drinks. Analía once more seeks solitude and only finds joy in the company of her son, Camino. The marriage reaches breaking point, and the opera heads towards a surprise conclusion. At the pre-concert event, the composer and librettist would not reveal the final twist, and so I shall follow suit, merely saying that the surprise is tender and feels right.

Alberga only fully fleshes out the character of Analía. As we watch, we feel for her, we suffer with her, we rejoice. Dramatic spotlighting in this way seems to make parallels with Berg’s Wozzeck (wherein we resonate fully with Wozzeck and, to a lesser degree, Marie. Other characters, the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major, are caricatures). We meet Analía initially age seven, at the funeral of her parents (the cause of their death is unspecified), and follow her life and traumas from then on. Analía is imaginative, but vulnerable and, initially, weak. The stark lighting, the ascetic, shadowy stage of the opera’s opening all speak of the dark emotions that will unfold.

Alberga writes for a fourteen-strong chamber ensemble (the line-up includes a tiplé, a Colombian guitar). Alberga’s music is at its best when it is fragmentary, its fragility echoing that of Analía. This is particularly evident in the opening funeral scene, but it enables her also to penetrate to the heart of Analía. The excellent Mary Plazas is the perfect choice. Her acting is beyond criticism, and her flexible voice allows her to shape the music easily. Her aria, “Once, on a lonely mountainside”, heard early on, was one of the evening’s true highlights. Here, Alberga writes long, melismatic lines that speak at once of loneliness and abandoned youth. Snippets of folk music slip into the accompaniment of the aria (Alberga does indeed use folk materials occasionally), as do South American rhythms (at the passage “… out across the plain, O Boatman, take me far away”). Plazas acted superbly (her resolution, “I will marry” was completely believable).

Jonathan May took the part of Eugenio, the demanding and self-centred father. The parallel with Wozzeck made above was actually raised in my mind by one of Alberga’s counterpoints to his sung line, and active bassoon that seems to mirror some of the double-bassoon lines in Wozzeck. As Luis, Christopher Steele fulfilled his character’s script as philanderer well, his shenanigans at the pub, “Inca Coca”, nicely abandoned. More impressive, though, was Arlene Rolph’s assumption of the role of prostitute Gloria Cardenes. Interesting how two singers take two characters each, and that the characters they take are perceived moral opposites. So, Paul Keohone took the roles of both the Priest and “El Chofer Loco”, the local taxi driver and a real bull of a man; Rolph takes the part of the Mother Superior and of her polar counterpart, the prostitute Gloria Cardenes. Rolph is a Kathleen Ferrier Award winner and one can hear why. Her voice is wonderfully free and flexible, and she had no problems portraying sexual frolickings one moment, then slipping into the role of the chaste Mother Superior the next. Although Plazas shone brighter than the rest of the cast, Rolph was the other star of the show, and constitutes something of a discovery. She has a superbly trained voice and, importantly, she has real stage presence. Keohone was perhaps the least dramatically convincing member of the cast.

The final stages of the opera are when the main character becomes empowered, and her life turns around. Her son Camino is catalyst to this change and the final stages of the opera introduce the tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson as José Lopez, whose final duet with Analía is infinitely touching.

Alberga’s opera is touching and certainly worth seeing. Whether the music itself has enough intrinsic character to carry it through to revival or re-stagings elsewhere remains to be seen, but Alberga’s skill as orchestrater and dramatist is never once in doubt. There are performances at the Linbury through until October 6th, and thereafter the work travels to Oxford (Playhouse, October 11), Cardiff (Sherman, October 20), Manchester (RNCM, October 27), Huddersfield (Lawrence Batley Theatre, November 5), Wales (Mold, November 8), Edinburgh (Traverse Theatre, November 17) and finally Aberystwyth (arts Centre, December 1).

Colin Clarke


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