I wish I could say that I enjoyed the new Spanish Easter “Opera in 5 acts”, El Caminante de Nazaret, yesterday, but there were a few things that were just too imposing which prevented me from doing so. The evening spanned around three hours, and covered the same type of territory that one would expect to hear in any large scale oratorio; such as Bach St. Matthäus Passion, Mendelssohn Elijah, or Handel Messiah. It was, in effect, a full rendering of the passion story. Start to finish. In Spanish.
The issues I had with the piece/production weren’t, for the large part, the singing that I heard from the soloists during yesterday’s performance. In fact, the evening featured some rather impressive and limpid voices.
The main soloists were pooled from a serious group of young singers. Among the principal voices was Linda Collazo, who played Mary Magdalene. Her voice was elastic and luxurious; opening up nicely through the top. A stentorian tenor Juan del Bosco played Jesus, who did most of the heavy lifting in terms of time spent singing. His voice was a force to be reckoned with, and it evoked dreams of Verdi’s Requiem or Aida. It is always great to hear healthy, full-throated singing. Baritones came to play, as well, in the voices of Pablo Garcia (Judas), Jose Maldonado (Pilate), and Frank Colón (Peter). Both Jose and Pablo had large, Verdian instruments to put on display, adding to the drama. Mr. Colón, while possessing a more slender instrument, engaged with the emotional intent of his struggle nicely, with gestures and thought out emotional response. Each one manifesting in his voice, to good effect.
My complaints didn’t necessarily extend to the effort surrounding the concert, either. It was refreshing to see a new-ish company shell out the money, and take the time, to hire and feature great local talent (including the awesome full orchestra). As a Juilliard grad myself, I was able to pick out a handful of outstanding musicians from my years there; hiding among the cadre. These are serious professionals, not amateurs.
The bulk of what bothered me about this performance had to do with how it was produced and how it was prepared. Whoever was in charge of the recording and amplification set-up for these concerts majorly dropped the ball. The whole concert sounded like a condensed recording, where loud and soft sounded none-too-different. Also, after the major climaxes of the heavier voices and ensembles, there was always a large feedback flare of the microphone. It was so loud, and happened so often, that it gave me and my girlfriend both headaches. It also threw the balance of the piece way out of whack. Someone thought it would be a good idea to mic this concert as though it were being performed in an arena outside, instead of inside a Methodist church with vaulted ceilings.
Not that the balance or blend presented in the piece was ever in danger of being good. The chorus suffered from a continual problem with blend and intonation. Many of the vowels were harsh, and individual voices stuck out everywhere. The microphone situation exacerbated this, by having random microphones pointed in careless directions among them. This made it so certain unpleasant individual voices from the smaller ensemble of disciples/choristers jetted out all the more.
I was initially encouraged by the overture of the piece, as it seemed to have a Romantic sensibility, worthy of the large voices under employ for the evening. However, as the concert went on, I realized that much of the concert sounded as if it were derived from various composers. At certain points in the program I would lean over to my girlfriend and say, “that sounds like…” Berlioz, or Mozart, or Verdi, or Beethoven.
While the composer did write in contrast with respect to tempi, time signature, and tessitura, all of the music (with very little exception) was sung syllabically. That means that each note was accompanied by one syllable of a word. This is a mechanism to get through text rather efficiently, but, at the same time, makes things sound homogeneous; especially if there is no break from it. The arias sounded much like the choruses, which sounded like the ensembles (what few duos, or other small ensembles there were). It made the music feel like I was listening to two and a half hours of very dramatic Spanish laundry lists, and it made most of the choruses feel monophonic…even when they were polyphonic.
There was narration over the music at regular intervals, too; spoken and amplified over the speaker in the hall, in English. It was so grating and loud that it startled me even when I knew it was coming. That is not to say that the narrators (either Elizabeth Arredondo or Emily Kitchens) did a poor job of narrating. They were actually quite emotive, and acted convincingly. I am sure that our narrator was a professional actress, from the way she payed attention to diction and inflection.
Lastly, the absence of an intermission until before the final (fifth act) was about two acts too late. Many audience members got up and walked around during some portion of the performance, because of how long it was. I understand why the intermission was placed where it was (because of the significance of the death of Christ on Good Friday), but at some point one must think logistically. If we have a group of largely over 50 year olds watching a three hour Easter marathon, they’re going to need a break. My girlfriend clued me in to that for good measure, as well.
For a summation, I say this — ditch the mics, iron out the balance (by adjusting the strength of the orchestra playing as needed), blend the chorus (and make sure they are singing uniform vowels and consonants at the same time), and give us another small intermission. Barring that, I wouldn’t recommend seeing this one yet. Too much left to iron out.
This review was in collaboration with Voce di Meche.
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