New Haven’s annual Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas has taken a bold artistic step in commissioning its first opera for its eighth edition, doing so in conjunction with Stuttgart’s Musik de Jahrhunderte and London’s English National Opera. And even if the end result, “Phantom Palace,” is less than compelling, festival director Mary Miller is to be applauded for exposing fest audiences to the contemporary music of Mexican-born, English-trained composer Hilda Paredes and the bold vocal explorations of Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. The opera is definitely for adventurous rather than traditionalist operagoers, however.
It’s also much stronger musically than dramatically, its multilingual libretto by Adriana Diaz Enciso, based on an Isabel Allende novella, coming across as banal and nondimensional. Indeed, despite English supertitles and some of the libretto being in English, it’s almost impossible to figure out what the opera is supposed to be about without reading the synopsis in the program. Without it, “Phantom Palace” seems to be no more than the cliche of a South American dictator lusting after the beautiful wife of a prissy ambassador from an English-speaking country: part “Tosca,” part “Evita.”
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Even the supertitles don’t help much because they are written in such odd English. When the libretto is spoken and/or sung in English, it’s no more comprehensible than when it’s in German or Spanish.
What “Phantom Palace” attempts to project is nothing less than “a compelling statement on the tragic social and political history of South America in the 20th century.” But neither the libretto nor the staging of Carlos Wagner or the clunky acting of most of the international cast achieves this end. And because the opera and its production are so static, with so little dramatic intensity or tempo, its 90 minutes seem much longer. The entire enterprise is far more Germanic than South American.
London-based Parades, who trained with, among others, British composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Richard Rodney Bennett, has written a score that is rich in atmosphere but tends to be more of an accompaniment to the action than its driving force. All of the musicians involved — singers and instrumentalists are under the baton of Peter Hirsch — are to be applauded for negotiating with such aplomb what is by no means an easy score.
The opera opens with taped voices, suggestive of the “invisible” indigenous people in South America, whispering around the theater. They are joined by tremolo strings, the onstage chamber orchestra of about 18 string, wind and percussion players often suggesting jungle sounds and bird calls. The vocal elements range from speech to sprechstimme to high coloratura, ululations, tongue trillings, yowlings and other non-traditional vocalizing. The use of a counter-tenor as the ambassador adds to the unusual aural tapestry.
The opening scene reveals the benefactor/dictator inaugurating his grand summer palace. The festivities include a tango that devolves into a drunken orgy. Shortly thereafter, the ambassador’s wife is abducted from her bedroom and raped by the dictator. At one point he smears her nightgown with pulp from a tropical fruit and then stomps on other fruit rolled onto the stage by the ensemble. This has no dramatic impact; it’s just messy.
Time goes by and the abducted wife “disappears” just as the local peasants have. (They appear briefly at one point to present a shadow-play about death and to beg unsuccessfully.) Years later, a group of arts workers at their computers decide they would like to find the summer palace and use it as a cultural center. The palace can’t be found; a tremulous projected image of it appears and then disappears as the opera ends.
The work will be heard again in Stuttgart on June 27-28 and, presumably, eventually in London. Of interest musically to followers of the contemporary operatic scene, its failures are more in its libretto and, here, the acting and directing.