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The Banal and the Beautiful

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
11/19/2010 -  
Ricardo Llorca: Las Horas Vacias
Presented by New York City Opera Society

Laura Alonso (Soprano), Angelica de la Riva (Actress)
Rosa Torres-Pardo (Piano), The Manhattan Choral Society, Thomas Cunningham (Conductor), The New York Opera Society Orchestra, Emmanuel Plasson (Conductor)
Joachim Shamberger (Virtual Stage Design)

(© New York Opera Society)

Heated arguments between composers and librettists during the making of an opera are hardly uncommon. But the conflicts between the composer of The Empty Hours and its librettist must have been fierce.

Composer Ricardo Llorca is young, original, has highly unique moments for his chorus, orchestra, piano and soloists. The Spanish-born, Juilliard-trained artist, now teaching in Juilliard, has put together a diversity of styles, and none seem artificial.

On the other hand, the original story and bi-lingual libretto was written by Ricardo Llorca with nowhere the flair of composer Ricardo Llorca. His subject is a boring woman whose only connection is unknown gentleman on the Internet. She longs for emotional satisfaction, sighs about unhappiness. Her unseen, unnamed, unmet gentleman caller is her only connection to reality, and that is so unreal. I have both sympathy and empathy, but don’t feel like spending 80-odd minutes with her on stage.

What exactly was Las Horas Vacias, which had its American premiere last night? Not quite an opera. The New York Opera Society String Orchestra and excellent Manhattan Choral Ensemble seated against a huge screen. In front was a piano, with Rosa Torres Pardo doing the honors. With the conductor in soprano Laura Alonso ready to leap up and sing–high, loud and as exciting as Ethel Mermen. On the other side of conductor Plasson was Angelica De La Riva, sitting with her computer and blandly speaking. All three women were dressed in flame-red dresses.

L. Alonso (© New York Opera Society)

The screen was filled with moving or static images, most against a sickly green or blue, interrupted by the words of the arias, in Spanish and translated English. The images included the usual moving feet in an urban setting, an ominous doorknob, and an old clock. More foreboding was the silhouette of a well-dressed middle-aged man in front of a computer.

He is of course the anonymous gentleman caller.

We never see him. But neither does his Internet pen pal, Ms. De La Riva. Instead, she speaks (in English) or her longing for him. I could not take down all the words, but she becomes exasperated when he doesn’t reply, she bemoans her boring existence, she feels that nothing will satisfy her.

A. De La Riva (© New York Opera Society)

In a way, this is like an update of Menotti’s Telephone, but there we had a story. Here we have that lonely woman who, like a bad virus, wishes to share and infect us with her problems.

And unfortunately, these problems are the same as a woman behind us in a crowded bus loudly sharing her problems with her cell phone.

When the frustration becomes too terrible, then singing alter ego Alonso takes over. Her arias, with the orchestra behind her, are passionate, rhythmic, they rise with the ardor of a Spanish Zarzuela song. At times she sings of the week (“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…”, or she sings about dance. Our speaker wants to dance (though she demurely stands and turns around). She sings (in the English translation), “I want to strip off my clothes and my reason.”

Mr. Llorca can push forth these songs with great inspiration. The tunes are highly emotional, they have a Flamenco fierceness in the lines with a tender Iberian rhythm coming from the string orchestra. I could have heard them over and over again.

At times the chorus joins in (or sings at the beginning an introductory Petrarchean-style sonnet about love), and these chorales too show inspiration melding Renaissance harmonies with colorful modern nuances, with orchestral quotes from 17th Century popular songs.

My problem was that, each time I heard those lilting Iberian rhythms and songs, I wanted something better than cliches in the words. Bernstein did it right with I Want To Be In America precisely because Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics that were poetic, piquant and ironic. Mr. Llorca’s lyrics (and the long recitatives from our lonely woman) accentuate the boredom more than the inner feeling.

Mr. Llorca calls this an opera, but I’m not certain of its genre. It could be transformed into a very powerful monodrama with one singer and perhaps the chorus. But even here, words must be as magical, as the notes.

To its credit, the New York Opera Society has given this a fine production. If the “virtual stage” on the screen was not terribly inspirational, it was not distracting. Ms. Alonso was extraordinary, giving the emotion and vivacity to emotionally vivacious songs. Mr. De La Riva’s speaking became wearing, but this was due to the words more than her abilities. Both orchestra and chorus gave it a lift and rhythmic jolting when it most needed that volition.

Opera is drama, not contemplation. Even Verdi, that master of operatic drama, insisted throughout his life, “The story, the libretto, and everything can be done.” Mr. Llorca obviously knows this, and hopefully will create the same drama in character as he has in his sometimes electrifying music.

Harry Rolnick



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