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Musical commentary
Enric Palomar

Don Ramón María del Valle-Inclán –Ramón Valle Peña, to give him his real name– was one of the foremost exponents of Spanish literature in the first three decades of the 20th century. In comparison with the trends established by the Generation of 1898 –writers such as Azorín, Machado and Unamuno–, Valle-Inclán has a more aestheticist bent, with highly luminous language effects and a concern for formal detail. This current, termed Modernism in literature, was galvanized by Rubén Darío, who was also the most prominent precursor of the blossoming of Ibero-American literature that was to take place many years later.

Valle-Inclán was a prolific writer whose output spans all literary genres: his poetry was a brilliant as it is now forgotten, while good examples of his prose are the Sonatas cycle and the novels Tirano Banderas and El Ruedo ibérico. But it was Valle-Inclán's dramatic works that most clearly marked a watershed: Divinas palabras (Divine Words), Luces de Bohemia (Lights of Bohemia) and countless other plays of varying lengths and aesthetic pretensions. Many of these can be designated under a single term which encapsulates his many-sided nature: esperpento. An esperpento, generically speaking, is a play that gives off a bitter aroma, with a violent or even macabre plot and characters who are often masks representing a concept or figures depicted with quick, dazzling strokes of the pen, so that they never attain an intricacy that would leave room for normality.

It is truly difficult in any art for an aesthetic concept to be born in a void, in which case it would inevitably give rise to a new genre. So it is worth bearing in mind the influence which Goya and his macabre sketches had on Spanish reality and, as Díaz-Plaja rightly points out, on the literary world of Baudelaire, Rubén Darío and Gautier, among others. But it is also important to stress that esperpento was directly related to the revelation –in situ– of Latin America, which had a tremendous impact on Valle. The discovery of certain Mexican authors –Díaz Mirón being the most outstanding–, of a literature that employed fresh and innovative resources, and above all of an aesthetic that gave prominence to worlds of darkness, abjection, abstruse passions and sub-reality, was of great importance.

La Cabeza del Bautista is an "esperpentic" recreation of the death of John the Baptist. It is set in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, in the midst of the devastating torrent that swept over Spanish society following the loss of the country's last colonies. Valle-Inclán turns Herod Antipas into Don Igi, an old man who has grown rich during his years in the Latin America and now runs a bar and billiard room where the patrons sing songs before setting out in a group, still singing, to tour the nearby streets. Herodias –Herod's wicked wife, who had the Baptist condemned to death– is La Pepona, a pleasure-seeking sexpot who behaves in a manner reminiscent of Salome in the first and last scenes. John the Baptist is El Jándalo, who owes the nickname to his accent. He is an old acquaintance of Don Igi's from Latin America, with a boastful air and not much money, and is unashamedly grasping. He ruthlessly blackmails Don Igi until the latter murders him in the last scene with help from La Pepona. Then La Pepona sings a macabre song of longing because El Jándalo, and not Don Igi, was the object of her lust.

The stage director Carlos Wagner and I agreed to make a few alterations to the original text to adapt it to the different dramatic requirements of an opera. We cut out a few repetitions, sentences and ideas that would have been superfluous when sung, but above all we introduced two novelties which we considered essential: we put a blind man into the opening scene in the bar, and we added a "Greek-style" chorus, if I may be permitted to call it that.
The blind man, and his associations in folklore, is almost an archetype in Valle-Inclán's works and a recurrent theme in his native Galicia generally. The actual blind man we added to the opera comes from El embrujado, another work by the same author which, like La Cabeza del Bautista, is also part of El Retablo. In the sombre atmosphere of the play, the blind man acts as an oracle who maliciously predicts the course of events. Thus from the very start he plays a fundamental role in bringing the action to its conceptual conclusion. In the end he is harassed and driven away by the customers and the groups of roving singers, but he has already issued his prediction.

The chorus does not play a leading dramatic role: it is always in the background −even visually− and its mission it to evoke certain connotations from poems by Valle-Inclán. The idea of the chorus occurred to us because we always had the impression that the play had an enigmatic “double layer”: beneath its simple linearity, its genuinely popular and even rude language, a loftier poetic stratum was always perceptible, a sort of living tragedy disguised by false, costumista humour. So we felt it was a good idea to add this counterpoint to the action in a bid to create a contrast at certain points.
Having reached this point in our presentation, it is worth remarking that the libretto of La Cabeza del Bautista does not contain the standard elements. At no time is there a moment of “stillness” that would allow for arias, in the historical sense of the term. The pace is relentless, it presses forward scherzandi, to use a musical term. Moreover, once the climax has been reached –the digging of the grave–, Valle-Inclán rushes into a sort of precipitato in which any sign of immobility would prove ineffective. Not until the end does La Pepona accept her strategic error and sing of her morbid craving: “¡Flor de mozo…! ¡Bésame otra vez, boca de piedra! ¡Yo te maté cuando la vida me dabas! ¡La boca te muerdo! …” ("Fine specimen of a man...! Kiss me again, mouth of stone! I killed you but you brought me to life! I bite your mouth..."). Alongside her and the corpse we observe Don Igi's evil, thunderstruck, madness.

Overall musical aspects

When I was invited to visit the Gran Teatre del Liceu to discuss the possibility of writing an opera on Valle-Inclán's text, I clearly remember the words of the artistic director, Joan Matabosch: “We believe this work is very well suited to your style of musical composition”.
Let me stress that I feel comfortable exploring and basing my works on the tradition and the great diversity of our musical and cultural heritage, but always adopting a present-day, contemporary discourse. In the course of my life, situations of convergence have arisen which have led me to immerse myself in the highly varied, rich rhythmic palette, the melismatic properties and harmonies that are characteristic of this fecund world. And I feel even more at ease if the play −and the concomitant aspects of the plot– present the same orientation. In my view, it is not dramatic convention that leads Valle-Inclán to portray this particular place and set of characters: he singles out and orientates part of the tale towards unequivocally Hispanic parameters. I, in the same way, try to endow my music with signs of identity, with a “maison connue” –to quote Lutoslawski– which makes it possible to identify its roots.
For the same aesthetic reason, I made frequent use of rhythms from our peninsular tradition: fandangos, soleás, tientos and bulerías. Often they appear in stylized form, or their contours are blurred into a mere sustaining presence.

Opera is a very special genre. A multiplicity of elements come into play and are coalesced and blended into one another by the music. As a composer I declare myself “in favour of the voice”, beyond musical conceptions and aesthetic ascriptions. The voice deserves to be taken into account and must be provided with a favourable setting: the need for naturalness, memorizable patterns and orchestral support must be borne in mind; we must not consider the voice an instrument in a void and force it to adopt strategies beyond its reach. What is sung has a musical commitment and a theatrical one too: it is opera.
From this it can be inferred that I always try, in my aesthetic views, to refer to parameters of "communicability": this is the area explored by the composers I admire, those who constantly stimulate me. I avoid major explanatory additions that purport to justify my works or endow them with extra-musical rigour. A work must stand or fall on its own, in its nakedness, without extraneous explanations.
We are the result of our affinities and our rejects. Everything is ultimately stored in a sort of synthesis which may or may not prosper and one of the few things that remain is loyalty to the artistic construction of our own selves. “Reality is immensely generous,” says the extraordinary painter Antonio López, and I, as a musician, endorse this.

Enric Palomar

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