Top albums of 2022: Benet Casablancas’s L’Enigma di Lea given in its intriguing world premiere production

Released on video in its world premiere production by Naxos, Benet Casablancas’s first opera, L’Enigma di Lea (2016-18), is both a formidable piece of music theatre and a parable of the medium itself. Cast in three parts and fifteen scenes, the musical score is based on a libretto by Rafael Argullol, sung in Italian and Catalan. A mystery play of sorts, the action in the outer acts, or parts, of L’Enigma di Lea transpires in spheres out of time and space, whereas the central part is set in present-day dystopia, resulting in overall narrative of parallels and mirrors, as manifested by Casablancas’s extraordinary musical arch. 

On stage, three main soloists and a supporting cast of eight, alongside full chorus make their appearances, whereas in the pit, a large orchestra of triple winds and brass, with four horns and tuba, timpani, an astonishing array of percussion calling forth four or five players, harp, piano, celesta and strings lays down an instrumental score of compelling intensity and intricacy. Solo flute and oboe are assigned to substantial concertante parts, lending the music with appropriately enigmatic aura. 

The title character, Lea, sung with commanding presence and virtuosity by soprano Allison Cook, is condemned to wander throughout time and space for having learned the essence of immortality during divine possession. As the owner of secret, her actions are ever monitored by two mocking guardians, Millebocche and Milleocchi, personified onstage with apt malevolence by soprano Sonia de Munck and bass Felipe Bou

Reaching the end of the world, Lea comes across with Three Border Ladies, who foretell her forthcoming encounter with Ram, the Blind Wanderer. Also an owner of secret, Ram has become blind by glimpsing eternity in a vision of Death bathing naked in the River of Time. Compellingly sung by baritone José Antonio López, Ram bears an aura of timelessness and rue, as strikingly demonstrated by his first act duet with Lea. 

The opening act concludes with a prefiguration of a far future reencounter between Lea and Ram, one contained with potential resolution and fulfilment.  

The second act accounts the earthly wanderings of Lea, presented in the guise of burlesque puppet theatre, directed by Doctor Schiksal, given in terrific stage portrayal by countertenor Xavier Sabata. In the play within play, the attempts to sculpt Lea’s face to cover her secret by three artists of different ages are re-enacted, representing three aspects of love; those of virginal, mystical and sexual. 

Taking place in an institution called ”The Outsiders”, the puppet theatre is presented to an audience of imprisoned outcasts, which include Lea and Ram. Upon their re-encounter, the opera enters into its concluding act, where the two secret-bearers are united in love-making, protected by the Border Ladies, soprano Sara Blanch, mezzo-soprano Anaïs Masllorens and mezzo-soprano Marta Infante. Set free from their fates, the two protagonists head for uncertain, unwritten future. 

In the course of the opera, mighty choral tableaux are unfolded, alongside solo passages and ensembles of pin-point musical characterisation. Casablancas’s vocal writing is ever-captivating, providing each role with their distinctive sonic idioms. 

The large orchestral forces are handled with utmost imagination, as the composer draws refined textures, intriguing harmonies and tremendous arrays of colour from the extended ensemble. Enhanced by repeated listening, one is to discover myriads of instrumental detail in the score, revealing filigree orchestral storytelling at its finest. 

Under Josep Pons’s ever-attentive musical direction, the Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Gran Teatre del Liceu deliver an admirably committed reading of the score, tackling its formidable challenges with enthusiasm, craft and refined taste. 

Directed by Carme Portaceli, the world premiere stage production serves the opera well indeed, turning the drama into theatre imagery of striking immediacy. The production passes the test of repeated viewing as well, providing the video audiences with further depth and insight upon each iteration. As always, some stage details age better than others, but the overall impact is nevertheless profoundly spellbinding.   

In addition to his vivid filming the stage action, Pep Hernández’s film direction also pays heed to the orchestra pit, capturing the players in some of their key moments.  

All things combined, the Gran Teatre del Liceu production of L’Enigma di Lea is to be noted among the most rewarding recorded releases of the year 2022. A milestone score from one of the finest composers of our time, this is an opera not to be missed. 

Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Josep Pons, conductor

Allison Cook, soprano (Lea)

José Antonio López, baritone (Ram)

Sara Blanch, soprano (Primera dama de la frontera)

Anaïs Masllorens, mezzo-soprano (Segunda dama de la frontera)

Marta Infante, mezzo-soprano (Tercera dama de la frontera)

Sonia de Munck, soprano (Millebocche)

Felipe Bou, bass (Milleocchi)

Xavier Sabata, countertenor (Dr Schiksal)

David Alegret, tenor (Michele)

Antonio Lozano, tenor (Lorenzo)

Juan Noval-Moro, tenor (Augusta)

Carme Portaceli, stage director

Ferran Carvajal, choreographer

Paco Azorín, set designer

Antonio Belart, costume designer

Ignasi Camprodon, costume designer

Miguel Àngel Raió, video designer

Pep Hernández, film director

Benet Casablancas: L’Enigma di Lea (2016-18) – Opera in 3 parts and 15 scenes. Libretto by Rafael Argullol

Filmed on 12 and 13 February 2019 at the Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain

Naxos NBD0143V (2022), 1 Blu-ray

© Jari Kallio

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