28 Aug 2015

La Púrpura de la Rosa

Advertised in the program as the first opera written in the New World, La Púrpura de la Rosa (PR) was premiered in 1701 in Lima (Peru), but more than the historical feat, true or not, accounts for the piece’s interest.

For those versed in Golden Age Spanish literature the name Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) will of course be familiar, but Calderón lovers and even connoisseurs are likely to raise an eyebrow at seeing the man who penned La Vida es Sueño (“Life is a Dream”), a philosophical tragicomedy solidly established in the canon of Western drama, become an opera librettist (English readers are invited to imagine Shakespeare or a quasi-Shakespeare writing an opera libretto to experience an analogous sense of puzzlement at the sight of the program). The conundrum, as Louise K. Stein explains in her excellent PR entry in mundoclasico.com (the introduction to her PR critical edition for Iberautor Promociones Culturales), goes back to 1659, when Calderón was indeed commissioned the libretto for Philip IV's court celebration of the Peace of the Pyrenees and worked together with Juan Hidalgo (1614-1685), the first person who set music to the text. All this happened in Madrid (Spain). To get to 1701 and Lima we need to go through several revivals of the opera (1679, 1690, and 1694, according to Stein) and the commission of the opera’s production by the Viceroy of Peru (probably in view of its success) to commemorate the 18th birthday of King Philip V and first anniversary of his succession to the throne. The composer of the Lima performance was Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco (1644-1728), born in Spain and later a resident of today’s Peru for several decades, a musician who, according to Stein, might have been a pupil of Hidalgo (it’s not clear from Stein’s entry what exactly motivated a fresh composer and thus score for the Lima performance, but apparently Torrejón left intact much of Hidalgo’s original music, so credit should be given to both for the final score).

The play and music themselves deserve more commentary that we can provide here (the reader is invited to consult Stein’s article for supplementary information). A highly allegorical text, PR tells the story of the love between Venus (Roman goddess of love) and Adonis (a handsome youth), which prompts the jealousy of Venus’ lover Mars (Roman god of war), and his attempt at revenge. At the end Mars partially succeeds, as Adonis is killed by a boar made vicious by Mars’ aids, which prompts Venus’ despair at the sight of his lover’s blood, none other than the “púrpura” of the opera’s title:


y así, ¿para qué has de ver

que humana púrpura corre?


Tanto, que de ella animadas,

cada flor es un Adonis

[Belona: And so, why do you want to see / / how human blood is running?

All: So much blood, that enlivened by it, / / every flower is an Adonis]

(PR, v. 1356-1359)

In between, characters like Jealousy, Disillusion, Fear, or Anger, among others, have tried to impart Mars a few lessons of prudential wisdom, apparently to no avail; in the end love triumphs and Jupiter elevates Venus and Adonis to Mount Olympus. The story, surprising for the candid celebration of erotic love in such a religious-minded author as Calderón, is accompanied by music that incorporates Latin American melodies and rhythms into an overall European dramatic and harmonic structure, with which one can establish useful comparisons with Renaissance or baroque composers such as Cabezón, Frescobaldi, Scarlatti, or Couperin. The opera itself (that is, the story and the music) can helpfully be compared with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

As for the performance, Le Château de la Voix deserves credit on various grounds. First for its choice of a little-known opera that showcases a strong and interesting tradition not seldom ignored in histories of classical music, i.e. the Spanish (a fortiori, the colonial Spanish). Second for having assembled a highly efficient orchestra composed of faculty members of the University of Illinois School of Music (continuo group of harpsichord, viola de gamba, guitars, lutes, and harp). Finally, for having coached a diverse group of young vocal performers whose lack of expertise was amply made up for by their enthusiasm and attunement to the intricacies of the Spanish baroque not unusually convoluted ways of expressing artistic emotion.

A final linguistic note: the Real Academia Española dictionary accepts “púrpura” as “human blood” (7 th entry; poetical use), but in current Spanish the word routinely means “purple” (the color) or, alternatively and more technically, “purple dye murex” (a particular variety of medium-size sea snail), which is the 1st entry given by the RAE. So much as an indication that for Spanish speakers (at any rate present-day ones) the expression “la púrpura de la rosa” still retains its original Baroque qualities.

Iker Garcia

Additional information:

Music by Tomás de Torrejon y Velasco (1644-1728)
Libretto by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681)
Saturday August 1 (7:30pm), Sunday August 2 (3pm), 2015, Smith Hall, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Le Château de la Voix (summer vocal Academy) accompanied by a period instrument orchestra

Click here for additional photos.