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"BANKSTERS" — Opera in Opera

The new opera by Nuno Côrte-Real, with libretto by Vasco Graça-Moura, has all the ingredients of confusion: it is tragic in its foundations, yet its form is burlesque; it oscillates violently between the smutty vernacular and erudite expression; it exhibits the moral content in a society simultaneously greedy and suspicious of morals; being absolutely contemporary, it establishes an argument and makes artistic references to the past.

Nevertheless, the opera imposes itself. How to explain it?

"Banksters" was made to be a classic in Opera – a classic in form, a classic in its potential of timelessness. Its artistic existence is not to be in fashion, but to be beyond fashion. «Banksters» was born in a context, yes; yet beyond fashion, so that in our future it could still be present.

At the departure point, the libretto was commissioned to an expert of language manipulation, a poet and novel writer, Vasco Graça-Moura. The base was José Régio’s «Jacob and the Angel». The librettist made a radical adaptation and rewriting by turning the central character into a bank director (Santiago Malpago), surrounded by his court and evoking such current issues as offshores, subprimes and I.R.S. (Income Tax of Individuals). The libretto, written in verse, lives with dialogue and includes recitatives, ariosos, ariettas and arias as well as gives opportunity to a vocal trio and quintet; the rhythmical clarity, the structuring and the variety, in which the operatic tradition is easily recognized, permit an immediate communicability. This communicability is stressed by two factors: the literary, affirmed by Graça-Moura’s verve and humour and the musical, in which one admires Côrte-Real’s accurate prosody.

Nevertheless, the libretto with its elocution constitutes only one of the opera’s various aspects. The work has a large-scale musical organization characterized by a great unity, in spite of the stylistic diversity, which it embraces. This unity is achieved either with leitmotifs, musical materials associated to characters and situations, or compositional extrapolations on a larger scale. This variety covers not only the harmonic environments (including the atonal), but also the textures, rhythmical profiles and small musical forms integrated into the dramatic discourse; one can find here pointillist passages along side with a waltz – yet this juxtaposition is not deprived of sense and coherence. Even the musical quotations (La donna è mobile, fairly evoked by someone who has Rigoletto as a name) and musical allusions (to Habanera from «Carmen», for example) are coherently integrated in the narrative. Only in two moments did I find the allusion or the artistic process not entirely achieved: in the 2nd act’s «fado», whose stylistic identity is tenuous and in the Shareholder’s «arioso» of the 3rd act (4th scene), which seems long and too saturated in the orchestral accompaniment with the theme and interim reminiscences. For the rest, the orchestration is of master richness and certainty. The variety of means and timbre combinations is surprising, along with the impressive capacity to create cohesive and differentiated environments. Above all, originality coexists with the «know-how»: the composer even benefits from the old, Italian opera tricks (duplication of Santiago Malpago’s vocal line in the final aria). Perhaps one or two revisions could be made (the 2nd act’s final cadence could be richer harmonically, the punch line of the 3rd act’s 3rd scene sonorously reinforced and the electric guitar’s presence less episodic). Nevertheless, in general, through the generous use of brass instruments, and details such as the bassoon solo and acoustic guitar on the stage, the composer reveals an enviable craft.

Perhaps its most remarkable quality lies in the capacity to manage dramatic time. The 1st and 2nd acts united in the performance by an orchestral intermission last around 35 minutes, respectively. The 3rd act occupies approximately 50 minutes, from which 30 minutes correspond to the five first scenes, which form a well-rounded first part. In the opera there are practically no «dead» moments (with the possible exception pointed out above). Nuno Côrte-Real seizes and carries us from scene to scene, from surprise to surprise, and from inevitability to inevitability – the tension does not fade out; the diverse sections float without discontinuity and their proportions appear to us as natural. In the 3rd act, when the action is held back after thirty minutes, a composer of a less thriving or focused creative imagination would probably drown. Yet, without special effort Côrte-Real sustains 10 minutes of dialogue; the final aria and epilogue last together 10 minutes more. It is the time when not only Santiago Malpago reaches the divine glory, but the composer also achieves a glorious tour-de-force, which justified a reinforced support from the audience.

At the opera’s two first spectacles the enthusiastic applause was also to acknowledge the excellent work of the orchestra, the singers, the director and the rest of the technical crew. Lawrence Renes’ musical direction had vitality, precision and subtlety. Jorge Vaz de Carvalho (Santiago Malpago, baritone) was sovereign in his singer-actor intelligence, whereas Musa Nkuna (Angelino Rigoletto, tenor), despite various Portuguese accent imperfections, was exquisite in the vocal emission and made an attempt to have an adequate scenic presence. Sara Braga Simões (Mimi Kitch, soprano), with a fresh and agile voice, was always convincing and musically certain on stage (contrary to what some audiences think, one cannot expect from the banker’s wife to have a «large voice»). Diogo Oliveira (baritone) created a perfect Shareholder; a positive remark should also go to Chelsey Schill (Spokeswoman, soprano), Nuno Dias (A.G. President, bass), José Lourenço (Magistrate, tenor), Ana Ferro (Doctor, soprano), José Corvelo (Lawyer, baritone) and all other singers, including the choir, which had few, but highly demanding interventions. Despite the libretto having little action, the cinematographer João Botelho, for whom «Banksters» was the premiere opera realization (with stage setting and costume design by Silvia Grabowski), reaffirmed his proverbial good taste. He directed the three-space dimension with visual economy and rigorous illumination by creating significant polarities, making the movements flow and adding different musically justified elements (dancers), for which he also receives my warmest compliments.

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