Wednesday, June 5, 2013

La Reina: old-fashioned melodrama meets modern grit at InsightALT

The InsightALT festival of masterclasses, symposiums, and opera performances concluded on Monday with La Reina, a dark, sensual opera for which I'm tempted to coin the term neo-verismo. Composed by Jorge Sosa with a libretto by Laura Sosa Pedroza, the opera was heard in a "first draft" version scored for piano and electronics; the eventual scoring is planned for chamber orchestra and electronics. Mila Henry was the able and energetic pianist; Andrew Bisantz conducted, holding all the elements together, and impressively realizing (I thought) dramatic tension and musical nuance. Sosa named his greatest influences as Saariaho and Messiaen, but I couldn't help hearing this lush, varied score and shamelessly melodramatic plot as reminiscent of Puccini. The opera's topical relevance was singled out twice for praise in the talk-back session (and by opera-goers decades older than I.) I was glad to have this evidence--as well as that of the enthusiastic, even rowdy audience applause--of excitement for a new opera that creatively engages and comments on a complex social problem. The score is rich, allusive, and even playful; the use of musical motifs helps clarify the multilayered relationships among the often dissembling characters. The electronics, here cued by the composer, were used to create a variety of textures, sometimes providing echoes of motifs or phrases, sometimes gunshots and sirens, sometimes a deliberate, deliberately overwhelming cacophony. Sosa Pedroza's bilingual libretto, meanwhile, is vivid: poetic and gritty by turns, shifting from the clichéd language of the newsroom or the clipped exchanges of drug bosses to lyrical sweetness for a love duet, and quasi-mystical imagery for the dialogues between Regina Malverde (the "queen" of the title) and La Santa Muerte, an ominous and otherworldly tutelary spirit.

I won't indulge in a detailed synopsis or analysis of the plot, as it's still being tweaked, so relationships may be clarified or altered and the balance of plot elements may change. I've pages of notes, though, on the fast-moving drama, on how the music tells the story, and on the opera's engagement with the question of free will vs. determinism. Musically and dramatically, the work confronted (if inconclusively) problems with female archetypes, as was hinted at in the scenes I previewed. As Regina relives her past at the command of La Santa Muerte, her youthful self is sung by a lyric soprano. After she swears vengeance against the man who rapes her, she becomes a mezzo. The soprano Regina, however, continues to reenter in the memory of and sometimes in duet with her mezzo self. The libretto's emphasis on the fact that Regina has always been the same woman balanced this unusual use of vocal archetypes. La Santa Muerte, the other female voice in the piece, suggests repeatedly that (in contrast to Regina's claims) being a victim did not doom her to be a perpetrator of violence. And Regina herself, interestingly, is inconsistent and self-contradictory, as is most poignantly seen in the opera's dramatic final scene. This takes place in the land of the dead, and is both hypnotic and oppressive. The singers, without exception, impressed me with their vocal and dramatic commitment; and the opera is written so that these were mutually supportive.

The role of a newscaster is a small but crucial one, setting up many of the concepts, personages, and significant objects of the drama in a short space of time. John Matthew Myers did this ably, through good use of text and the deployment of an impressive range of color in his full, lyric tenor. The patriarchs of the feuding cartels were well sung by Tom McNichols, a truly imposing bass, and Dominic Armstrong, who used his tenor expressively in an unexpectedly complex role. As the young Regina, Rosa Betancourt displayed a sweet-toned lyric soprano and a capability for long-spun phrases. She began winsome and became much more than that, a compelling and tragic figure. As an aside, I really appreciated that the good-girl, virginal, lyric soprano character was allowed to be excited about sex in a love duet with her new husband. This love duet was indecently gorgeous, one of the most romantic (in every sense) moments in the score, and is revisited at moments both tender and sinister.

As the unrelievedly wicked schemer, El Pozolero, Javier Abreu did a very impressive job with difficult music. He was convincingly sleazy, and handled well the score's vocal insinuations of nastiness. Whether snarling or sneering, as a gunman or would-be seducer, or an assassin singing a children's song (deeply unsettling!) Abreu was convincing to a disturbing degree, and demonstrated a formidable range of vocal expression.
Baritone Christopher Burchett gave a standout dramatic performance in the role of El Gringo, exuding sexual confidence in the first act, and complete exhaustion (physical, mental, emotional) in his last substantial scene. Versatility of tone and style was also demanded of him, as El Gringo moves between worlds and personae. The audience may lose sight of who he really is; Regina isn't sure who he really is; it's quite possible that he himself isn't sure. His eventual credo is so pathetically hollow, so defiantly shouted, that it seems to undermine its own conviction. Perhaps obviously, I found it very well-written and -sung. Audrey Babcock brought to the role of Regina a very dark, smoky mezzo, and an apparently effortless smolder. She handled both Regina's practical ruthlessness and her existential anguish well and credibly. Her extended scenes with La Santa Muerte, sung by Audrey Luna, were a highlight for me, as they had excellent vocal chemistry to join to the intriguing vocal contrast between the roles. As La Santa Muerte, Luna contributed considerable vocal glamor, as well as astonishing vocal facility. Voice of conscience and of judgment, she was impressive throughout. The role was written with her in mind, and her laser-like high notes were often used to--quite literally, in dramatic terms--work magic. At the conclusion, I was left both deeply impressed, and with myriad questions which may be unfair to pose to an unfinished work, but I'm really looking forward to seeing how composer and librettist continue to develop La Reina within the ALT program. Monday's performance is archived for viewing here.


  1. You are welcome to link to the video webcast of the workshop - we have no plans to take it down.

    1. Thanks, that's great news! The link in the last sentence is to the only page I could find on your website where the webcast was available (through the pop-out player.)


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