Hang onto your hat! We’re up, up and away on the Passarola. What’s a Passarola? It’s a flying machine invented by rogue Portuguese priest, Padre Bartolomeu de Gusmão, in early 18th century Portugal. Dom Joao V, a bit if a ninny, was on the throne. Both feature in Blimunda.

This early, heretical – the padre doesn’t believe in the Holy Trinity – precursor of the Wright Brothers has invented a machine that will fly using a supply of “human wills” as a kind of eco-fuel.

Don’t tell Ryanair chief, Michael O’Leary. He, who once thought charging passengers for going to the khazi was a good plan. With kerosene prices at all-time highs, what an opportunity for the famous mould breaker to increase margins.

“This is your Captain. Welcome to Ryanair’s Airbus Passarola, flight PAS 1, from Lisbon to Dublin. Turn off your mobiles. Now, hold hands, all think of Dublin and we’ll have you there in a jiffy. It’ll take your mind off needing to go to the jacks anyway. Er, …. and keep thinking hard. Today’s Irish Sea temperature is 7C.”

Portuguese composer, Azio Corghi, wrote Blimunda in 1990. The opera with its 18th century setting premiered to great acclaim at La Scala, Milan and Lisbon, then, unfuelled by sufficient human wills, crashed and was lost to sight. Until now.

Brought back to Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de San Carlos (TNSC) by Nuna Carinhas, director of the relatively nearby Teatro Nacional São João in Porto, Blimunda is an opera rooted in Portuguese history, and modern literary tradition.

Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate novelist of whom I bet you have heard as little as I, wrote the novel, Baltasar and Blimunda, upon which the opera’s libretto is tightly based, in 1982.

The book is available in a 1987 English translation by Giovanni Pontieri, which should have widened Saragamo’s audience, but didn’t.

Corghi wrote the libretto in collaboration with Saramago. So, the opera reflects the author’s vigorous writing faithfully. Blimunda packs a hell of a punch. This is no nostalgic period piece. Harsh realism represents abominations of absolute political power and Inquisitorial fanaticism, but in parallel tells a lyric fantasy about a company of free spirits, especially Baltazar and Blimunda, fighting injustice and seeking their moment of freedom. How? The Passarola.

A detailed synopsis is available here. The piece may be rooted in 18th century Catholic Portugal, but the read across to modern times is compelling.

Carinhas is also a noted painter and set designer. A mainly local cast sang under the musical direction of José Eduardo Gomes.  All the voices were severely tested but rose to meet the occasion.

Corghi attempts to compress the world of Saramago’s novel, into the space of two hours of music. No mean feat, as the novel is a whirlwind, bringing together the turmoil of Portuguese society in the 17th century, combining historical figures, such as Scarlatti and aviation pioneer Bartolomeu de Gusmão, (Sig. Passarola) with King João V and Queen Maria Ana.

João is determined to father a male child amidst much initial bed-squeaking while Princess Maria Bárbara plays the harpsichord under Scarlatti’s watchful eye.

Fictional characters are added to the mix. Blimunda, who has the rare gift of being able to see inside people and bottle up their wills after death to fuel the Passarola. Then there is Baltasar, her soldier lover who lost a hand in the war only to have it replaced by an enormous, crudely crafted prosthetic that with one wave would have had Captain Hook diving over the side of the Jolly Roger.

Centre stage are the Portuguese people and the omnipresent threat of The Inquisition.  Rather than attempting to distil the novel, Corghi, who wrote the libretto together with Saramago, instead places the action in three diverse spaces – the ‘spazio acustico’, ‘spazio immaginario’, and ‘spazio reale’. 

The effect leaves the audience questioning what might be real and what is perceived. The difference is subtly elided. Corghi uses an amplified octet of singers, on their own rock, to produce additional acoustic effects. In making noises, highlighting sung fragments of melody, or adding twentieth century interpretations of renaissance madrigals, they are meant to add an additional acoustic layer to the texture. 

I would rather the piece had been left unamplified. There was already enough crashing and banging from the orchestra pit. I looked in to see four percussionists, all preparing to beat the hell out of assorted drums, pipes, a whopping triangle and in one case a sheet of metal.

This was technically demanding. Tubby the Tuba was in the pit rehearsing for 45 minutes pre performance, making the auditorium shudder to a sequence of impossible, descending triplets. Then, Tommy Trumpet joined him with 30 minutes of nail gun blasts.

Corghi’s music is an acoustic adventure. Speakers were scattered around the house, amplifying individual instruments, or the voices of the octet. Difficult to tell what was real and what might be amplified electronics. 

Corghi also distinguishes between sung voices, Baltasar, Blimunda, Gusmão, and Blimunda’s mother, Sebastiana Maria de Jesus, and other characters, who speak their parts.  Corghi’s word setting of the vocal lines requires characters to spend a lot of time declaiming in the lower part of their registers, yet at times asks them to sing out at the very top of their voice, making considerable leaps. 

The pace of Corghi’s music is surprisingly stately, rarely moving beyond andante, providing an enveloping sound world around the action, but lacking in forward driving fizz and compelling rhythm.  There’s a hazy world of high string harmonics, occasionally interrupted by brassy outbursts or a jazzy trumpet.

Carinhas gave us a fluent and cogent staging.  The set consists of three rocks, representing the tripartite structure of the libretto. Scarlatti declaims his lines from the rock on the left.

The famous Italian composer had agreed to join the Portuguese court, “to make of Lisbon a new Rome”. Up to a point. His neck to be exact. Luís Madureira, himself a noted tenor, spoke Scarlatti’s lines in Luso-accented Italian.

He looked a bit like the Scarlatti on CD covers, decked out in an 18thc electric blue, velvet outfit. Except, for some reason props had forgotten about his head. From the neck up, Scarlatti was a Lisbon businessman, out for lunch at the nearby Belcanto restaurant.

He sported the comby-over haircut favoured by self-denying baldies everywhere, and a pair of dreary specs straight from the nearby Rua do Carmo MultiOpticas clinic. A powdered wig and pair of pince-nez from Amazon would have been transformational. €20 was all it needed!

The main part of the action takes place on a central rock, which folded conveniently like a dining room table. The octet sings on its own right-hand rock. 

A visual artist, João Alexandrino (known as JAS), was responsible for live design projections screened on the back of the stage, creating images that were meant to “evolve from perceived into actual”. The images represented …. er, ….  I’ve no idea. They came and went randomly. My best guess was blood-stained clothing, an unsubtle reference to The Inquisition’s massive, rolling auto-da-fé.

“Personenregie” – a satisfactorily poncy term for moving folk around the stage, with which I have only this week become familiar and will now smugly flog to death – was subtly done. Good group action.

The characters clearly related to each other, helped by magnificent props, such as the forest of processional crucifixes, and the chorus moved around as a unified ensemble. This is a staging that presents the action logically, illustrating the multidimensional nature of the score.

The musical performance had clearly been prepared with exceptional attention to detail. José Eduardo Gomes, the conductor, led a reading of extraordinary clarity, soliciting playing of the highest quality from the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa. 

There was delicacy in the way that the strings executed hazy harmonics, or the sheer poetry with which the solo flute rendered long, lyrical lines, annoyingly echoed around the auditorium through amplification. The purity of the moment was destroyed.

Strategic big brass and percussion nuclear bursts were delivered with remarkable unanimity.  There was a clarity to Gomes’ direction that brought out a wealth of instrumental detail. The orchestra had clearly been painstakingly prepared.

Blimunda is unquestionably a challenging score. The sound world conjured into life is not for everybody. If it’s difficult to tell when the orchestra has stopped tuning up and the big guy at the front with the baton has started conducting, any audience knows it is not going home whistling the tunes.

Any good? Certainly, “like” would be the wrong test for this opera. The music was intensely disturbing, and as I left after a frenetic series of curtain calls, I felt as if I was departing a war zone. Which was satisfying, as that was the point of the evening.

Blimunda, soprano Dora Rodrigues, spent much of the night growling around in her lower register.  It’s a challenging sing, given that she spends so much time down there, yet must frequently leap up to the top and sustain some high-lying passages.

Rodrigues approached this confidently, singing with authority and presenting a compelling figure on stage.  Her rich-toned soprano has an attractive polish, and her diction is impeccable, using the Italian vowels to find beauty in the line.

Baltasar, Julian Hubbard, a well-established tenor on the UK circuit, also braved some long passages of text which he carried off confidently.  The role requires heft alongside an ability to shade tone with delicacy.

Hubbard was super competent. While capable of volume, he could also pull back if need be and caress the tone lovingly. He coped well with the demanding tessitura, negotiating the passaggio with confidence. 

Luís Rodrigues, a Portuguese baritone, no relation of Dora, sang Gusmão powerfully, attacking his music heroically, particularly high-flying phrases that come out of nowhere.

I know Rodrigues slightly, having met him backstage last May, after a superb performance of Faust. I congratulated him afterwards and he emphasised how important it had been to revive Blimunda, a Portuguese opera, on the Lisbon stage.

I asked if Dora Rodrigues was a relation. No, but he does have a daughter, soprano, Cecília Rodrigues, who has already performed at TNSC. No opportunity lost for a commercial

Maria Luísa de Freitas sang Sebastiana in a thrilling contralto, declaiming the text as if possessed. She, too, is a Portuguese singer, well known in both Porto and Lisbon

My biggest quibble was that the Passarola tuned out to be little more than an aspirational Airfix kit. Bits and pieces of intriguing balsa-like parts being handed around. I had been expecting Blimunda soaring against the back screen, like ET. The wee boy in me was glum.

But nothing can detract from TNSC’s courage in mounting a challenging production of a Portuguese opera that deserves a wider international audience. I wouldn’t have traded my unforgettable evening in Lisbon for the world. But maybe for a swooping ride over the Tagus in a Passarola.

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