Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rivas - Aliados

Sébastian Rivas - Aliados

Festival Musica, Théâtre de Hautepierre de Strasbourg, 2013

Léo Warynski, Antoine Gindt, Nora Petročenko, Lionel Peintre, Mélanie Boisvert, Thill Mantero, Richard Dubelski

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 4th October 2013

Presented at the 2013 Festival Musica in Strasbourg (and streamed live via ARTE Live Web on 4th October), Aliados is a somewhat experimental opera work from Sébastian Rivas that mixes avant-garde Ircam electronics with acoustic instruments and voices. There's also a modern approach taken to the staging of the work with the use of live cameras projecting, highlighting and enhancing the dramatic action. Perhaps most interesting aspect of Aliados however is the subject matter of the work which sets out in real-time a 75-minute meeting on 26th March 1999 between the Chilean President in exile Augusto Pinochet and the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had only recently been forced to step down from her position.

More than just a two-person dialogue, there are actually more people involved, and the work does successfully extend outside the room to the outside world where the actions of these two people once had a much wider impact. This aspect is indeed so vital that it the opera even opens with an Argentinian soldier, shell-shocked and tormented by the Falklands war, writhing on the stage, who reappears at a later stage to emphasise in barked delivery that he was "conscripted into the theatre of operations ...for nothing", by "generals, assassins and pirates".

There's definitely a sense of confusion as to what it was all for, but a determined sense of self-justification as the work progresses on the part of Pinochet and Thatcher. Pinochet is clearly ill, slumped in a wheelchair, his memory failing, making confused and fragmentary comments about a "beautiful ship", "The Phoenix", "Pearl Harbour" and the Second World War. An aide, who is preparing his medication and keeping a register of the Senator's "achievements" (lists of deaths, arrests and the disappeared) tells him that he's thinking of the Belgrano, sunk by British forces during the Falklands War. Pinochet, longing for the "blood-covered streets of Santiago", has no regrets for the deaths caused by his regime, raving that it necessary for "national unity" and that it was Allende and the Communists who are really to blame for the problems in Chile.

Baroness Thatcher arrives with her personal secretary and the two former world leaders exchange gifts of their own biographies, in mutual admiration for themselves and each other. Grateful for his aid during the Falklands conflict, Thatcher offers Pinochet political asylum and talks about needing to "keep her head" for a statue that is being cast to stand in Westminster, but her speech is marked by gaps and it seems clear that her mind is also failing. Eventually, both slump into their chairs in defeat, only to be revived by troubling memories resurfacing, Pinochet preoccupied over descriptions of himself as a dictator, the Iron Lady recalling the miners and the Belgrano, slipping into refrain of "it was a danger to our ships... that is fact" on an electronic loop that forms a mournful chorus of self-justification.

Both the music and the staging are vital in establishing this very particular mood and make some effort to get beneath the surface of these larger-than-life characters towards some semblance of personality if not exactly humanity. Stage director Antoine Gindt manages to give a sense of the encounter taking place in real-time by using multiple cameras that project details and close-ups. He also captures something of the closed room mentality of the protagonists within the limits that mark out the square room, but also gives a wider sense of who they are and how their actions have had a wider impact beyond the walls of the room by having the floor made up of a collage of photographs and newspaper articles related to the Falklands War, with additional images and footage projected on the screen behind.

Rivas' score works in a similar fashion, the music - played out mainly on solo violin with trombone, piano and saxophone - has percussive elements that are insistent in a militaristic way when referring to the wars and deaths. Through some computer manipulation and electronic effects - applied to the voices as much as the instruments - the score also manages to reflect the wavering, distorted mentalities of Pinochet and Thatcher, the sound haunting and twisted, backed by drones and random noises.

In some respects the subject matter of Aliados is similar to John Adams' Nixon in China in as much as it touches on the god-like delusions of the powerful and the reality of the frailty of the human mind and personality. Aliados however is much more chamber-like and intimate in its observations, the libretto free from the poetical observations and abstractions of Nixon in China, avoiding making any specific political or social observations that the meeting between Thatcher and Pinochet might signify. It's much more a sonic exploration of two personalities of common accord in their common discord.  

It seems appropriate that the two even dance a tango of a somewhat disturbing if tender nature, a dance over the dead by two former "Defenders of the the Atlantic", two allies ("aliados") confined now to the smallness of a room and the terrors of their own disintegrating minds. A sad account of the endgame of leaders who abuse power and wage war - particularly on their own people - Aliados is unquestionably a work of extraordinary intensity that has relevance to many other contemporary world situations.

Aliados is currently still available for viewing on-line via the ARTE Live Web site. The opera is sung in English and Spanish, with only French subtitles provided.