Hippolyte et Aricie, Ultramarina: yes, it’s opera!

Two brave private companies from Greek incest to Porteño pimps and whores

I recently wrote about the diversity of opera as an art form. In this review you will find two prime examples: Jean-Philippe Rameau’s initial opera Hippolyte et Aricie and the premiere of a short Argentine chamber opera, Ultramarina, music by Pablo Mainetti and libretto by Edgardo Cozarinsky. The first at the Usina del Arte for three performances, the second at the small theatre Hasta Trilce for a considerable number of evenings.

By Pablo Bardin For the Herald

Rameau’s irruption into the operatic French scene was late but momentous: Hippolyte was written at the age of 50 in 1733; the composer would dominate Parisian opera for the next thirty years. Rameau would write in extremely varied subjects, going from the “tragédie lyrique” (such as Hippolyte), to “opéras-ballet” such as Les Indes Galantes or light intermezzos such as Pigmalion.

Hippolyte has a typical Baroque libretto by Simon-Joseph Pellegrin based on Racine’s Phèdre, who had Euripides’ Hippolytus as reference. It follows Lully’s five-act scheme and as his predecessor has “divertissements” (dance interludes) , but in many senses what Rameau does is new. Astonishing harmonic command (Rameau wrote the first important treaty on the subject), imaginative orchestration, beautiful melodies, strong contrasts, deep expression in dramatic moments…

The story involves Hippolytus, the son of the Demigod hero Theseus and the amazon Antiope, and Aricia belongs to the Palantides, enemies of Theseus. Phaedra is Theseus’wife. Gods intervene: Diana, Neptune through his messenger Mercury, and Pluto, King of Hell. Eventually, Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus, considered a crime, will take the lives of both, but the young lovers will marry, for Diana will bring back Hippolytus to life.

As far as I know, the only Rameau operas offered in BA have been Castor et Pollux (twice) and Les Indes Galantes (semi-staged), apart from the premiere three years ago of Hippolyte by the same group under Marcelo Birman that now has revived it, the Compañía de las Luces. He is our local specialist in French Eighteenth-century opera (either by Frenchmen or by visiting composers) and we owe him Rameau, Lully and Salieri premieres, as well as a splendid Gluck revival, Iphigénie en Tauride.

Back in 2011 the premiere was at the Museo de Arte Decorativo, certainly cozier and warmer than the Usina; but also smaller, forcing a very limited staging. The producer then and now as Pablo Maritano; I found his work then rather irrelevant, seemingly based on re-disposing chairs. Well, in the new version he does this with a vengeance and it soon grows tiresome. With unaccountable modern costumes (uncredited) the singers’ relationships are sometimes clear enough, but a lot looks arbitrary. I found especially bothersome Carlos Trunsky’s outlandish choreography, tasteless and out-of-style.

The best singer, then and now, was Marisa Pavón as a strong, tragic Phaedra. Ana Moraitis seemed diminished in volume and rather wan as Aricia compared to 2011.

Sergio Carlevaris was a powerful bass Theseus, though his voice production sounded strange in some low tones. The current condition of Pablo Pollitzer’s timbre is so harsh that his knowledge of the style doesn’t come through.

The solid voice of Norberto Marcos gave us a positive Pluto, a bit too rough. Beatriz Moruja as Diana was miscast; we needed a young contralto with the agile looks of a huntress. The rest were below par and won’t be named here. The two women dancers seemed better to me than the men, but they all had to deal with ungrateful steps.

By far, apart from Pavón, the best things were the 19-singer Choir, accurate and with very good voices (prepared by Marcelo Dutto) and the able historicist ensemble, made up of 22 players and admirably led by Birman. A pity that the orchestra was relegated to the back of the stage, losing presence, and that Birman gave his back to the singers, making ensemble difficult. The Usina’s hall has no orchestral pit, unfortunately.

I will be brief about Ultramarina. It deals with a hard subject, the Polish Jewish organisation of pimps and whores Zwi Migdal that was present in Argentina during the first thirty years of the Twentieth Century. The libretto is based on Cozarinsky’s novel El rufián moldavo. The piece lasts about 55 minutes. The music by Pablo Mainetti is tango-inspired and gives an adequate blend of contemporary techniques.

The story involves four Polish whores-against-their-will, the madam, the pimp and the lover of one of the girls. One of these will become a popular singer in BA, fleeing from Rosario. And one will die.

This was a project of Marcelo Lombardero when he was at the CETC and had the backing of the then-extant Fundación Szterenfeld; the money was received and with it several years later the staging was possible. And it was good: as producer Lombardero avoided the grotesque pitfalls and dealt sensitively with the scabrous story line. With expressive lighting by Horacio Efron and a stage design that permitted veiling (Noelia González Svoboda) the chamber opera gave us a convincing picture of sordid situations.

The singers responded quite well both vocally and as realistic actors: Victoria Gaeta, Trini Goyeneche, Myriam Toker and Rocío Arbizu as the whores, Marta Cullerés as a truculent madam, Santiago Bürgi as an intense lover and Norberto Marcos as the brutal pimp. The 11-player ensemble responded well to Andrés Juncos’ conducting.

Both operas are in deep contrast but tackle extreme dilemmas of life. Two brave private companies deserve support for their enterprise.