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Singing voice

Enric Palomar

Because of the parallels between Oscar Wilde's
Salome and Valle-Inclán's play La cabeza del Bautista we decided that the voices of the triangle of characters who play the leading roles in the opera should also be similar. Thus Don Igi is a tenor; La Pepona, a soprano, and El Jándalo a baritone. The remainder of the Dramatis Personae consists of: Valerio 'el Pajarito', tenor; the Barber, baritone; the Tailor, baritone; the Salnés Dwarf (Merengue), tenor; the Rondalla [translator's note: A rondalla (or ronda) is a group of young men who tour the streets singing. The same term can also be applied to the tour itself], two tenors and two baritones; the Blind Man, baritone-bass; the Blind Man's boy, mezzo; Mixed Chorus (who sing illustrative poems in certain scenes).

The opera opens with an introduction in which the chorus sings Valle's poem 'Rosa de Llamas' –from his book El Pasajero–, a metaphor of decadence, swathed in a mist of lyricism that is highly characteristic of the author.
All the secondary characters appear only in Scenes 1, 2 and 3, apart from the mixed chorus and the roving chorus of young men, which is seen briefly in Scene 5 (the opera, it should be pointed out, is staged in a single act, without interruptions). These are essentially introductory scenes in which Valle depicts the setting, the popular speech, and the first indications of social decadence. The act is described as portraying the preparations for a
rondalla. I took advantage of this to include a strophe from an old song I heard as a child in Aragon: “Madre, cuando voy a leña / se me olvidan los ramales./ No se me olvida una niña / que habita en los arrabales.. (Mother when I go to fetch firewood / I forget the twine./ I don't forget a little girl / who lives on the outskirts.) This whole first scene is a continuum midway between mockery and social criticism; even a few political comments are included. Here I felt that supple voices, a flowing rhythm and prosody, and an ambience virtually devoid of lyricism would be suitable.

The end of Scene 1 was the ideal place for a popular song because the patrons of the bar are chatting and making a noise. Valle-Inclán describes this happening at various points. So I thought it would be opportune to include a song I entitled “Golondrongo”, because of the repetition in the ritornello. It comes from the tonadilla for three voices from Blas Laserna's El Cordero perdido. It was written in 1781 and I found it in Felip Pedrell's Cancionero musical popular español. It is appropriate to this dramatic situation and reminds us of the performances that were given in yards and squares in the 17th and 18th centuries. I entirely reharmonized the song and added a few instrumental interludes while the customers hold clearly comical conversations with one another. This song rounds off the preparations for the rondalla, which have been taking place throughout the scene.

The arrival of the Blind Man (Scene 2), with his gloomy but ironical air, breaks the apparent of tranquillity of the bar. He has a powerful, dramatic voice and promptly launches into two almost consecutive monologues. The first is a popular copla written and turned into verse by Valle-Inclán himself. Though costumista in tone, it has a totally disrespectful, roguish air about it. Each stanza from the Blind Man is matched by a more bucolic-style response from his boy. The Blind Man's second monologue operates as a deliberately abstruse prophecy, rife with speculations about betrayal, death and desolation. At this point I introduced a musical dialogue between the chorus and the Blind Man (let me recall that the chorus is not visible on stage). I gave the sentences strong symbolic overtones, which help to keep the prophecy in a “musical retina” which will later be closed. The Blind Man's second monologue is written to an old Spanish rhythm known as tientos, which is slow, slightly ceremonious, unsettling and in four-time. It always follows a pattern that comes from the dance. It is a slower variant of the so-called flamenco tangos, which arose out of a blend between autochthonous Iberian rhythms and rhythms from the Caribbean.


Once the Blind Man has been driven away, the work focuses on the triangle of main characters (Scene 3). El Jándalo arrives with his boastful, arrogant air, like an archetypal inhabitant of the Río Plata region. He introduces himself as a gentleman who has visited every possible corner of the earth and starts flirting with La Pepona as soon as he meets her. Valle-Inclán describes El Jándalo in the following terms: “sobre un caballo tordillo, con jaeces gauchos (…), altas botas con sonoras espuelas. Se apea con fantasía de valentón.” (riding a piebald horse, with gaucho-type harness(…), tall boots with clinking spurs. He dismounts with swaggering air). This description prompted me to introduce El Jándalo to a farruca rhythm (type of flamenco), with two beats and a highly characteristic stress pattern (every eight quavers). The animal magnetism between El Jándalo and La Pepona is instantaneous. The customers notice it and sing the last lines of the poem "Rosa de Túrbulos", which expresses a whole range of lyrical thoughts about femininity.

Thus at the end of Scene 3, the work enters in medias res. El Jándalo and Don Igi, standing face to face, have an altercation in which the reason for the former's visit is made clear: he has come to blackmail Don Igi over an obscure episode of his life in Latin America. Don Igi reacts histrionically while El Jándalo and the customers leave “singing a village mazurka”. This annotation, which is by Valle, gives me an opportunity to resort to folklore once more by adapting an old Castilian song with words that provide an apt commentary on the situation:

A los árboles altos / los lleva el viento
Y a los enamorados / el pensamiento.
El pensamiento, ay vida mía, el pensamiento.

Corazón que no quiere / sufrir dolores
Pase la vida entera / libre de amores.
Libre de amores, ay vida mía, libre de amores.

(Tall trees / are tossed by the wind / and lovers / by thoughts. / Thoughts, ah my life, thoughts. // A heart that is adverse / to pain and suffering / must go through life / free of love. / Free of love, ah my life, free of love.)

Once El Jándalo and the customers have gone, Don Igi remains alone with La Pepona and can give vent to his deepening anxiety (Scene 4). This is quite a long scene –about 20 minutes– with only these two characters on stage. Melodically it alternates between Don Igi's growing anger and La Pepona's cold, calculating determination. When they have agreed on their plan, they become wildly amorous: Dáme un besito. / Eres muy rica. / No seas renuente, niña. / Luego tendremos la fiesta. (Give me a little kiss. / How gorgeous you are. / Don't be shy, little girl. / We'll have our party afterwards.). But La Pepona implacably keeps her distance: No quiero. / Luego. / No estás poco gallo. ( I don't want to. / Later. / You're very cocky.).

The approval of the plan leads into the dramatic climax (Scene 5), which is a veritable intermingling of different forms of depravation. In the middle La Pepona is digging the grave for the future corpse; El Jándalo and the rondalla are approaching the bar, singing popular songs by Valle-Inclán off-stage. Superimposed on all this we hear the chorus intermittently singing lines marked by a gloomy, lyrical unreality from the poem "La Rosa del Reloj".

At this point Valle-Inclán sets off a precipitato (Scenes 6, 7 and 8). All three scenes are marked by a frenzied rhythm and the crescendo of Don Igi's madness and El Jándalo's caustic attitude. The opera ends (Scene 9) with a solo by La Pepona, who sings lines from the poem "Vista madrileña", pianissimo, over the voices of the chorus. She is expressing a sort of macabre nostalgia, for she was sexually attracted by El Jándalo, not Don Igi. The words of Don Igi, as he sinks into madness and solitude, bring the opera to a close.

Enric Palomar

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