March 7, 2014
An opera? A study in grotesque, rather
For the Herald
Antonio Tauriello had a long life (1931-2011) divided into a brilliant period until he was about 55 years-old and a sad one in his last 25 due to a neurological disorder that limited drastically his musical activity.
During the good years he was one of our best composers, conductors and pianists. He had an important international presence, especially when he was in charge of opera at the New York Juilliard School and for a long period assistant conductor of the Chicago Opera.
At the Colón he was both an operatic and a concert conductor. He was also a notable pianist of contemporary music. As a composer his production was small but valuable.
I had two connections with him and both show the amplitude of his musicianship. About 40 years ago my colleague Julio Palacio and I were at the helm of a short-lived midnight TV programme at Canal 7 offering contemporary music; one of those programmes was memorable: Tauriello and Gerardo Gandini, with the assistance of master percussionist Antonio Yepes and another excellent percussionist, played the seminal Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion; my colleague and I presented and were page-turners.
Then, in 1973, I was in charge of programming at the Buenos Aires Philharmonic; Bruno Martinotti fell ill and Tauriello took over at short notice; the great cellist Leonard Rose effusively and congratulated him for his support in Dvorák’s Concerto.
I wasn’t alone in deeply regretting his health problem for no other artist was so complete at the time.
His personality was special: he looked like a sanguine, mustachioed Italian, but his music making was subtle and intelligent, and so were his compositions. As a composer, he never had a wide following, perhaps because he created sparsely and after an initial Symphonic Overture (tonal) he soon wrote advanced music, showing the solidity of his studies with Alberto Ginastera. He had a deep knowledge of twelve-tone technique and also soon acquired the refinements of the new trend of sound-based composition and of electroacoustic music. I mention his orchestral Impromptus and Culebra de nubes II as significant works.
Las guerras picrocholinas is a curious score from 1974 that wasn’t premièred during his life.
Although it was presented as part of the Tercer Ciclo Iberoamericano de Ópera Contemporánea, I don’t think it’s an opera; its 53 minutes are rather made up of incidental music (vocal and instrumental) and a long acted text based on François Rabelais’ Pantagruel. It was a world première edited by Melos; the French text adapted by Jacques Nichet and Bernard Faivre was translated into Spanish; the hand programme doesn’t specify the translator, nor is it quite clear that Tauriello wrote the piece to the French text. Rabelais lived circa 1494 and 1553 and his combined masterpiece is the four books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, based on giants proceeding from anonymous Lyon chapbooks.
These fantastic narratives, completely irreverent, are Renaissance manifestations of wild creativity both in language and content, hard to read both in French and in the English translation published by Britannica Great Books.
The adjective “Rabelaisian” has come to mean gusto for life of a Falstaffian dimension, where scatological expressions are liberally spread and food and drink are as much of the essence as sex and philosophical musings.
The text of Tauriello’s concoction is based on chapters 25 to 51 (skipping some) of Book I telling the story of the war between the cake-bakers of Lerné and those of Gargantua’s country.
It is of course a ridiculous war, in which the principal characters are Picrochole (King of Lerné), Grangousier (King of Gargantua’s country), a tremendous priest with parallels with Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame, and in a late appearance, Gargantua. Finally, the giant and his troops win. The story is told in nine fast tableaux.
The production had three performances at the Sala Guastavino of the Centro Nacional de la Música; I saw the last one and the place was packed.
On the left, the 15-member Ensamble de música contemporánea del DAMus (IUNA) led by Santiago Santero and Natalia Salinas; on the right the six-member Ensamble vocal prepared by Juan Peltzer; in the middle the nine actors and a big table; in the stairs the twelve acrobats and dancers. The General and artistic coordinator was the composer Juan Ortiz de Zárate, supervised by Rubén Verna; the producer was Diego Ernesto Rodríguez; choreography by Diego Ivancic; stage design by Gabriela Piepoch; costumes by Alejandra Soto; lighting by Belén Chardón and Rodrigo Alvarado.
I don’t understand why Tauriello, eminent opera specialist, was so far from an opera in his only attempt at staging a story; his music is subtle, very avantgarde, refined: quite the opposite of the story, grossly acted and yelled by the actors who often overwhelmed the music, which includes a Janequin quote. At the end a thought struck me: could a suite with only the music be extracted from this failed experiment? For I would like to hear it again but not in this context; mind you, I’m not attacking Rabelais but rather what I saw. And I’m sorry that Tauriello fell so short of a real opera and chose wrong,
I think he could do it and we were left without what could have been one of the few Argentine contemporary operas of value.
The music was well played and sung, however.