Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The work was inspired by the jesters (bufones) and dwarfs depicted in paintings by Diego Velásquez when he was court painter to King Felipe IV in the mid-1600s. Strauss presents us with six characters from this group. Amazingly, we know the names of these people and something of their lives. Two of them, Maribárbola and Nicolasito, appear in the ultra-famous Las Meninas, almost always cited as one of the ten greatest paintings ever. The other four also had portraits done by Velazquez. The Spanish court was quite well documented, both on paper and on canvas.
Strauss's theater piece consists of two acts. In the first, the six characters present themselves to the audience, each singing an aria that reveals something about them and something about their function at the court. The first, Pablo de Valladolid, is not really a bufon, but rather an actor who was the director of entertainment at the court. He invites us to experience the glories and contradictions of Madrid when the Spanish Empire was still at its height. In this production, André García-Nuthmann did a good job portraying him, the only drawback being that the music calls for stentorian singing and his tenor voice was not strong enough to fully fill the theater.
There follows Don Sebastian de Morra, a dwarf who was a companion to Felipe's first son, but whose function at court ended when the prince died at 16. His is a melancholy tale of a useless life spent in a palace where "they do not say what they mean, and they do not mean what they say." He was played, incongruously, by Michael Hix, a strapping six-foot baritone, but once you get past that, it was a good portrayal. Then, Nicolasito, an impish dwarf who gets away with everything because he is the queen's pet. Ingela Onstad shone in this trouser role, looking for all the world like a mischievous teen, with a lovely soprano.
Sam Shepperson played "Don Juan de Austria," not a nobleman but a simple jester who feels consistently disrespected. In a perceptive bit of writing by Strauss, Don Juan complains more than once about Maribárbola getting four pounds of snow every day during the summer, whereas he, who has seniority, gets nothing. Sam captured the character, aggrieved but comic, nicely. Carlos Archuleta was very strong, both in voice and in acting, as Don Diego de Acedo, a dwarf who became a confidant of the king. His aria is one of frustration, describing how he would advise the king if only he were able to without overstepping the bounds of court etiquette. This is the sad function of the jester, to know better than the king what is the best thing to do, but to not be listened to. (I was impressed that the translator had him addressing the king using the Old World Spanish vosotros instead of the Usted form that we're used to here.)
The final character is the dwarf Maribárbola, who is the companion of the Infanta, the centerpiece of Las Meninas. Beautifully sung by Christina Martos (who was listed as a soprano, but sounded like a mezzo to me), her aria included a series of riddles sung to the Infanta as a sort of bedtime story, and was very lovely. Taken together, the six characters give us a fair depiction of Spanish court life and of their own lives.
The second act was enjoyable, but considerably weaker as a theatrical device. It is simply a concert given at court by our six characters (one of their jobs was to be entertainers). The songs, some choral and some solo, have no common theme or purpose, at least as far as I could tell. Los Bufones would be a much stronger piece of work if the second half had some interaction, maybe even a plot, among the characters we have just come to know before the intermission.
Nevertheless, Ron Strauss has produced a commendable opus. His musical idiom is not derivative, but his own. It is defiantly not contemporary, not discordant, not minimalist, not academic. I hate to use this word because it's become such a cliché, but here it is: It's "accessible" music. I don't know who would not like it except those single-mindedly committed to the avant garde. It reminded me somewhat of salon music and French art songs and, because it is in Spanish, of zarzuela, but as I said, Mr. Strauss is no copycat.
It is scored for piano, violin, and cello, which were played excellently by Debra Ayers, Megan Holland, and Joel Becktell, respectively, and it was very capably conducted by Kristin Ditlow. The stage direction was done well by Jean Moss, but to be blunt, there wasn't all that much directing needed for this show. The set by Laura Chancellor, props by Victoria Davila and Laura Chancellor, lighting by José Gallardo, and especially the costumes by Cheryl Odom and Manuel Jacobo, were all fine. I want to commend all of the singers for their very clear diction. I could understand every word (my Spanish is not very good, but with the help of the supertitles controlled by Ronald Grinage, I could follow the lyrics easily).
It's a shame that this piece was staged for only one weekend. A lot of work went into it, most especially by Ron Strauss, and I hope it gets picked up and done elsewhere. It's a crowd-pleaser, and not just for the opera crowd and Spanish history buffs. It deserves a wider public.
Los Bufones, a new work with music and libretto by Ron Strauss, was presented at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, January 19 through 22, 2016.