Opera Nacional de Chile stages Catholic Church satire9:16, 21st August 2018
Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
El Cristo de Elqui, or The Christ of Elqui, was the Teatro Municipal’s first world premiere in 45 years during its regular opera season. The work redefined Chilean opera, with its a strong ideological stance, questioning religious beliefs and the nature of faith.
This is the first opera based on Chilean historical events, irreverently satirising the Catholic Church for its abuse of power. The subject matter is timely, since sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have recently exploded in Chile. With music and libretto by Chileans Miguel Farías and Alberto Mayol respectively, based on two novels by Rivera Letellier – La Reina Isabel cantaba rancheras and El arte de la resurrecciόn – the opera revolves around the historical figure of Domingo Zárate Vega from Elqui, a peasant turned self-proclaimed Messiah who amassed 2,000 followers in the early 1930s.
French-Argentine director Jorge Lavelli brought a mesmerising Brechtian approach to the opera, full of gripping dream-like and nightmarish visions. The opera doesn’t really see its characters develop, so Lavelli presented them as skeletal caricatures. Except for a funeral scene with striking backdrop of the pampas, the stage was dark and empty. Bishops ride bicycles, the cardinal is wheeled about in a chair. Workers march in clownish synchronisation, testing and ridiculing Cristo.
Most striking visually was Reina Isabel’s brothel, where a chorus of 60 prostitutes paraded about in various stages of undress. Cristo loves the whore Magalena (a reference of course to Mary Magdalene). While the clergy rants that a whore can’t have a Christian burial, Cristo seems to effect Magalena’s resurrection. His journey ends at Santiago’s train station, where believers wait to greet him while the authorities stand by to take him away.
The opera opens and closes with the sound of wind blowing across the pampas (created by swirling hosepipes), capturing the desert’s ambiance during interludes. The music, impressionistic with moments of minimalism, alternates between tonal and atonal writing, sprinkled with a Glass-like repetitions. Echos of Debussy, Prokofiev and Shostakovich permeate the score, whose vocal lines are a continuum of recitative and spoken dialogue. Each character has a changing musical motif resulting in numerous mini-climaxes that gave structure to the work. The clergy are characterised by fat, vacuous octave intervals whereas dissonant tritones filled with inner tension identify Cristo. Prostitutes are given the most melodic music along with ranchera (Mexican folk songs) and Chilean folk melodies. Conducting, Pedro-Pablo Prudencio kept these diverse elements together with precision, tension, and ideal pacing – no small feat! The cast and chorus were outstanding.