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   San Sebastian Quincena Musical 2009 (2) - F. Escudero, Gernika: Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi. Sociedad Coral de Bilbao.Conductor: José Ramón Encinar.Auditorio Kursaal de San Sebastián. 26.8.2009 (JMI) 

Concert Version.

Gernika: Ana María Sánchez.
Gogor: Gustavo Peña.
Aitona: Alfonso Echevarría.
Podio: Fedrico Gallar.
Publio: Fernando Cobo.

As mention in the earlier review of Las Golondrinas, the San Sebastian Quincena Musical quite rightly decided to offer concert versions of operas by Basque composers this year. As well as Usandizaga’s Las Golondrinas,  this time the production was Escudero’s Gernika. Regardless of the musical and vocal results, it was a great initiative to perform works by local composers at this important Music Festival.

is the second and last opera by Francisco Escudero (San Sebastian 1912-2002) and was premiered at Bilbao’s Teatro Arriaga in 1987 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sadly notorious Guernica bombardment during the Spanish Civil war. Then, as on this occasion, the opera was offered in concert version, and was never performed again.

My personal evaluation, which I am sure will not be shared by other opera critics present at Kursaal Auditorium, is that Gernika is not as interesting as Escudero’s first opera, Zigor  - 'Punishment' in the Basque language. After a good first Act, we come to a tedious Act II, followed by a quite noisy Act III (the bombing) and a rather flat finale. The libretto, by the composer himself,  offers next to no dramatic interest and is full of clichés, which are interesting and much welcomed by locals but too weak for a musical composition lasting more than two-hours. Zigor has much inspired music in its first half, but Gernika is short of inspiration from the outset.

As mentioned briefly already, the idea for the opera arose from the bombing of the town of Gernika on 26th April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. It presents an idealised view of the history of the Basque Country, portrayed as free and  peaceful state following  the traditions of its forebears with a government that is an intrincic and important part of the  community. The government rejects violence and war, defending dialogue as the only solution to conflict.

The opera contains symbolic references: the heroine, Gernika, symbolises the entire Basque identity, while the pact made with the King of the North evokes the pact that  supporters of the Basque nationalists claim to  have been established between the Basque provinces and the Castilian crown. Gernika herself is therefore a symbol of the essential freedom of the Basque people, their customs, ancestral traditions and  a symbol of peace.

Set in the Basque Country, this is an imaginary tale in which Gernika and her lover Gogor sight some armed men on the horizon and convey the news to Aitona, the old man who presides over the population's assemblies. The Basques make a pact of equality with the king of the north, leader of the armed group. 

Podio, head of the militia followers of the king of the north, attempts to seduce Gernika, threatening to destroy both her and her people. He also tries to recruit help from the Basques in the shape of men and money for their king, but they refuse because it is not part of their agreement. A group of dissidents however believe that it is right  to join forces with Podio.

The Basque president Aitona is saddened by the split in the Basque people and, together with Gernika and other women, proclaims Basque freedom and union. Podio tries to kill the king. The character Gernika, foreseeing the destruction of her people, has a vision of the town of Gernika being bombed, at which point the reall historical scene makes its appearance in the imaginary tale.

Returning to the imagined story, Podio fatally wounds Gernika when she rejects him , and  her corpse, is burned on a pyre while Gogor is accused of her murder. One of the troop leaders discovers the truth and gives Podio away. Gogor wants to kill him, but Aitona prevents him from doing so, saying that the king of the north will punish him enough. Although Aitona is anguished by Gernika’s death, he says that her followers will continue to thrive and that the world will eventually recognise the Basque people. The king of the north eventually does so and the opera closes with the rousing message that life will edure among the Basque people despite everything.

Without question Escudero was a very good musician - as evidenced by his many moments of brilliant orchestration,  but even in this regard, Gernika is less attractive than Zigor to my mind. It is particularly strange that the chorus has no really interesting music, taking into account that the work was originally  commissioned by La Sociedad Coral de Bilbao. In this sense too the opera is a poorer work than Zigor

Musical interpretation was in the charge of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi, led by José Ramón Encinar. This experienced conductor is a specialist in contemporary music and,for me,  he offered the best performance by far in the whole concert. He conducted with huge conviction even though there were some moments of excessive volume - although that's not  truly important given the opera’s subject matter. The orchestra played very well for him, better than the standard they often provide we performing in the pit. 

The vocal cast however offered few stars, a logical situation considering that this is an opera with an uncertain future and is sung in Basque.  Ana María Sánchez was Gernika, a clairvoyant, a kind of Basque Norma, killed by Pollione (here Podio), but with no children. This soprano is not at her prime, with a very problematic high register. She filled out the character nicely however and worthily tackled the unfamiliar Basque language. Gustavo Peña was the best of the cast giving an outstanding interpretation of Gogor, Gernika’s lover. One very pleasant surprise was to see the veteran Alfonso Echevarría   cast as Aitona, the Basque president and a kind of Basque Oroveso. It is more than two years since I saw him last and he was still in good form. Federico Gallar provided a decent characterisation of Podio, Gernika’s assassin, although he was somewhat short of interest in purely vocal terms. Enrique Baquerizo is not a bass, which is required for the king from the north but the tenor Fernando Cobo exhibited a well placed voice as Publio. As for Las Golondrinas,  there were some nice video projections accompanying the concert, this time provided by David Pujol. 

The Kursaal had some empty seats and some people left at the interval. The final orchestral tutti seemed to wake the audience up though - enough for them  to give a warm final reception to the artists. The ending of the subject is particularly sensitive in the Basque Country of course and the opera is by a local composer. Obviously, success was almost guaranteed because of these facts, even though not necessarily expected from the vocal casting.

José M Irurzun

Opera synopsis by courtesy of Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi.


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