Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci in Strasbourg

Alberto Ginastera’s opera Beatrix Cenci is a grim, not to say, horrid, piece about male dominance, savagery and debauchery and the desecration of the female body. Containing incidents of rape, incest, and murder, it is not everybody’s idea of an evening’s entertainment. Those who encountered the Argentinian composer’s Bomarzo when it was given some years ago at the London Coliseum will know what to expect when brutality and cruelty are set to music: violent discords, note clusters, short, screeching phrases for strings and wind, leavened by the occasional quiet, lyrical moments and, in this case, a pastiche of Italian renaissance tunes.

It was a bold venture on the part of the Opéra du Rhin to mount the piece but, it is sad to report, not very successfully. The problem may lie partly with the work, in particular with its somewhat anachronistically wordy, poetic libretto by William Shand and Alberto Girri, but there were other shortcomings. Having experienced at Stuttgart the previous evening (see another modernist opera performed with conviction and commitment and obviously very thoroughly prepared, the approach taken in Strasbourg to Ginastera appeared in contrast to be somewhat hesitant, even tame, both dramatically and musically.

The production by fellow Argentinian Mariano Pensotti reflected the fact that this was his first venture into opera. The movement and images (designer Mariana Tirantte) were insufficiently linked to the sounds emanating from the pit, and the contemporary domestic settings on the revolving stage did little, without imaginative lighting effects, to reflect the inhumanity of the principal characters. Of course, such settings may serve to reinforce the universality of the work, but they could and should have been overlaid with something more sinister to make the necessary impact. Then, though It was a good idea to start the drama with a huge idealised sculpture of the female form and for this to disintegrate as the tragedy deepens, the repetition of the dismembered pieces bobbing up and down became tedious.

The conductor Marko Letonja was careful, rather than aggressive, with the score and the orchestral sounds were insufficiently scary. Nor were the soloists totally convincing. As the debauched abuser, Gezim Myshketa was too humdrum, too conventional, and the top of his bass voice was disappointingly thin. Vocally Leticia de Altamirano met all of the not inconsiderable demands of the title role, with security and a full tone in the highest register, but dramatically her portrayal of the unrelenting misery of her predicament and the hopelessness of her destiny remained too pale to generate empathy.

Admittedly there were some very impressive aspects to weigh against these weaknesses. The Turkish mezzo Ezgi Kutlu, as Beatrix’s stepmother, had completely mastered Ginastera’s musical idiom and invested her singing with a wholly appropriate dramatic intensity. And the penultimate scene, in which the naked Beatrix was drawn on a tray around a table on which workers was preparing for packaging small statuettes of the female form, communicated a brilliant image of female victimisation.