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'Conquistador' Strongest in Its Narrative

Opera review: The production, premiering in San Diego, may not contain lasting music, but it tells a compelling, true story of spiritual conversion during the Spanish Inquisition in the New World.

March 03, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — "The Conquistador," a new opera by Myron Fink given its world premiere Saturday night by San Diego Opera, tells a startling story. It reveals a chapter in the history of our part of the world that gets little attention--the persecution of Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition, only to be as mercilessly oppressed in the New World by the Spanish conquerors as was the native population.

It tells the true story of Don Luis de Carvajal, a Spanish admiral, governor in New Spain (as colonial Mexico was called), brutal conquistador and founder of the Mexican city of Monterrey. Though raised Catholic and a fervent believer, he happened to be the offspring of Jews who hid their background from him for the child's own protection. When that past was discovered, Carvajal's family was burned at the stake and he died in prison.

This is, particularly as Fink and his librettist, Donald Moreland, recount, very much the stuff of opera. Carvajal is brought down in part because of his own arrogance and his socially overreaching love for the niece of the Viceroy. He undergoes, in prison, his own painful spiritual conversion as the Judaism deep inside struggles toward the surface. It is--or at least would like to be--"Don Carlo," Verdi's opera of the Spanish Inquisition; "Parsifal," Wagner's great conversion opera; and "Boris Godunov," Mussorgsky's great political chronicle, all rolled into one.

Actually the matter of "The Conquistador" is more the stuffing of opera. The stuff of opera--the mysterious way music, poetry, visual art, acting, singing and an orchestra come together to create something outside of narrative--is what makes operas matter.

"The Conquistador" is, on the other hand, narrative opera, plain and simple. And, as such, it is masterful. The composer--who was born in Chicago in 1932, taught for many years at New York's Hunter College and has retired here--skillfully uses the orchestra as punctuation and accompaniment. He sets every word to be understood. He knows how to let the voice operate in its most naturally lyrical way. The singers get huge rewards, since their many show-stopping climaxes are written with ease in mind. But the music itself is conventional in its ideas to the point of practically disappearing--the way a film soundtrack might.

Both Fink and Moreland, moreover, seem much more comfortable with plot than poetry. Rarely will one find an opera that presents a narrative with such lucidity that a reading of the libretto beforehand is not only unnecessary but unadvised. The director, Sharon Ott-- artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre--tries nothing fancy to obscure the obvious. And she has the advantage of a versatile and colorful set designed and excitingly lit by Kent Dorsey and some splendidly colorful costumes by Deborah Dryden.

*

But most of all, she has an extremely well-prepared and dramatically adept cast to help keep an audience riveted. The tenor Jerry Hadley, as Carvajal, demonstrates that he is continually growing in dramatic stature, and is here allowed a real heroic outing. But he is also surrounded by a large and consistently outstanding cast: soprano Elizabeth Hynes (Elena) is rapt in her love duets with Carvajal; and one wished the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux (Isabel, Carvajal's Jewish niece who attempts to convert him) had more opportunity to flesh out her fascinating role.

Some other standouts included Kenneth Cox as Carvajal's Franciscan friend Sahagun, who chronicles the opera's events; and John Duykers as the scary Guerrero, the Chief Inquisitor. Karen Keltner conducts with a sense of grand sweep, but the one weakness of the production is her orchestra, in which solo instruments are all too often more exposed than seemed comfortable for the players.

*

Thus far, no other company has expressed interest in "The Conquistador," and the opera probably has far too many cliches to have much of a life beyond San Diego. But, with this work, the company has demonstrated that it can make opera relevant.

Though "The Conquistador" is not exactly what is known in some circles as "CNN opera," a new genre steeped in political relevance, it does have obvious parallels with a recent revelation: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright learning for the first time of her Jewish heritage. And it couldn't be better timed to historically illuminate the issues explored in the current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the art of exiles and emigres.

Best of all, "The Conquistador" is the kind of opera needed to help whet audiences' appetite for new work. And that, from the enthusiastic response it received Saturday, it seems to do very well.

* San Diego Opera performs "The Conquistador" Tuesday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. at Civic Theatre, 3rd Avenue and B Street, San Diego. $25-$100. For information, call (619) 236-6510.

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