Recently in Performances
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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
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
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
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
Click here for additional photos.