|Ricardo Herrera, Corinne Winters, Jeffrey Picon, Leonardo Granados, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett
When Artistic Director Steven Blier puts a program together you can count on an entertaining evening that is also instructive. If you only listened to the music you could leave happy, but if you paid attention to Mr. Blier's charming narration you would have learned more about the culture and history that produced the music than you ever dreamed of, and you would have learned it painlessly. And if you read the program notes you will know more than most people.
We had only been aware of the 1959 revolution that overthrew the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed Fidel Castro; but before Batista, Cuba was in the hands of the repressive Gerardo Machado and many of Cuba's musicians, composers and performers alike, fled the violent Machadistas and a Cuba impoverished by the hemispheric economic collapse. Paris welcomed them with open arms.
Last night's program began with a popular song of 1853 by José White entitled "La Bella Cubana", the theme of which reminded us of "The Girl from Ipanema". Tenor Jeffrey Picón and baritone Ricardo Herrera sang this duet to soprano Corinne Winters, praising her beauty. The gorgeous melody was definitely inspired by the bel canto period, which may explain its being our favorite song of the evening. This may be the only song that Mr. White wrote; he was a child prodigy and a violinist who studied at the Paris Conservatoire.
The rest of the evening's program focused on the first half of the 20th c. Racial tensions ran high in Cuba and music was one way to bridge the gap between the Caucasians and the Afro-Cubanos who were descended from slaves. Accompanied by the percussion of Leonardo Granados, Ms. Winters sang Eliso Grenet's "Lamento esclavo", a rather gentle protest song of a slave of the Lucumi tribe; Mr. Picón sang a lament of a Karabali man "Canto Karabali" by the well-known Ernesto Lecuona, accompanied by both Mr. Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett. Both performances were moving.
The two men sang a funny duet by Alejandro Garcia Caturla which dealt with the pain of a man trying to meet American girls and striking out because he'd never learned to speak English.
Zarzuela has always been a major delight to us and we fondly recall an evening spent with Opera Hispanica, listening to a panel of experts discussing its origins. It's been a very long time since we had the pleasure of hearing and seeing a complete zarzuela; hearing excerpts of a few last night gave us great pleasure. Cuban zarzuelas were a means of dealing with the social and racial tensions of the 30's. We loved Mr. Herrera's heartfelt performance of "Mi vida es cantar" from La Virgen Morena and Ms. Winters and Mr. Picón's charming duet "Yo vivi soñando en un cuartico" from Lecuona's Rosa la China.
But our favorites were excerpts from Toi C'est Moi by Moisés Simons. The gentlemen's duet had a lively music hall feel and Ms. Winters' "C'est ça la vie" was an arresting take on the Carmen story in which Carmen kills a cheating Escamillo.
Most surprising were the final songs on the program: "Guarina" written by Sindo Garay, an illiterate Cuban-Indian, to his daughter, and "Son de la Loma" by another untrained musician. In every case, Cuban music is rhythmically vital, making it difficult to stay seated.
Like the drink, it all went down easily. Happily, we are not left with a hangover but we are left with a desire for more.
© meche kroop