The voice of the angel at the Liceo of Barcelona

Concerts 22.03.2023

The second living female composer to have the honors of the great hall of the Liceo, Barcelona's Raquel García-Tomás, awarded the National Music Prize in 2020, brings to the opera stage the tragic destiny of Adelaide Herculine Barbin (1838-1868) under the titleAlexina B.

Named Alexina by her parents, the heroine is an intersex person who, for the first time in history, has had her/his gender identity changed in the French civil registry. Before committing suicide at the age of thirty, he/she leaves a written testimony of his/her short life entitled My Memories.

The autobiography, which attracts the attention of Michel Foucault, is the subject of a study by the philosopher in 1978 when the filmmaker René Ferret brings to the screen, in 1985, the story of this life of combatant under the title The mystery of Alexina.

French writer and academician Irène Gayraud draws on the source of the writings to develop the libretto of the opera (French with Catalan surtitles), which concentrates in three acts and twenty-two scenes the most important moments of Alexina's life: her meeting with Sara, daughter of the headmistress of the boarding school where she is a teacher, and her love-passion for her; her run-ins with medicine, the church, and the jurisdiction, a whole heteronormative nineteenthᵉ century society that disregards her true gender mix and forces her to become a man (Abel Barbin) in order to marry the one she loves; without the change validated by the law la.Does he know well who he is? "I suffered and I suffered alone, abandoned by all", he writes before taking his own life at the age of thirty.

This is how the opera begins, in a virginal whiteness and a key of D minor, the one, very symbolic, of the requiem and other lamento of history. Children (the voices of the choir), of which an angel watches over the inanimate body of Abel Barbin, evoke through their refrain(Compagnons de la Marjolène) the happy days of the heroine's youth. With the arrival of the doctor and the policeman, we switch from white to green, the dominant color of the whole opera, that of institutions in the XIXᵉ century, director Marta Pazos tells us. The body of Alexina/Abel, a hermaphrodite as it was said at the time, must undergo an autopsy...

The flasback, as in the cinema, begins with the arrival of Alexina in the institute where she will teach and meet Sara. The stage space is flexible, the sets come down from the hangers and the characters disappear into the trap doors, in a first act that seamlessly links the first ten scenes of the opera. The numerous "curtain falls" in the following acts further fragment the story, which stretches out a bit. The costumes ( Silvia Delagneau's) are period and the outdoor scenes, in much more sustained greens, remind us of the importance of nature in the XIXᵉ century. More interesting is the direction of the actor and the choreography of gestures(Maria Cabeza de Vaca) regulating the movements of the characters, whose stylization is not without evoking the manner of a Bob Wilson. Very successful, at the end of the first act, the love scene between Sara and Alexina puts on the front of the stage the bed, descended from the hangers and maintained in the vertical. Between voluptuousness and second degree, Marta Pazos adds to it the mute participation of the children in their own bed, whose movements counterpoint this slow ascent towards enjoyment, the only moment of orchestral plenitude joining the Wagnerian ecstasy. 

The context of the XIXᵉ century and its colors (those of a Franz Liszt as well as a Jules Massenet) are also very pregnant in Raquel García-Tomás ' score, which wanders between tonality and blurring of pitches, instrumental source and noisy instances of electronics : a music of the in-between, interstylistic one could say, which joins the thematic of the libretto and serves closely the dramaturgy: such as these stormy demonstrations which return several times, metaphor, it seems, of the tears felt in the body of the heroine. Seventeen instruments only are installed in the pit, directed of master hand by the Spanish conductor Ernest Martinez-Izquierd.

In this chamber orchestra deprived of low brass, the piano and the harp are particularly active via their ascending spirals aiming at the high registers of the instruments that the electronics sometimes come to relay. This attraction towards the light felt throughout the opera is accomplished in the songs of the nun Hildegard von Bingen heard at the end of each act. These moments of grace pass through the voices of the superbly prepared children (Vivaldi choir - Little Singers of Catalonia) and open the limitless spaces that Abel calls for in his last aria.

Except for the few masculine intonations of Alexina/Abel reminding her intersex, there are no low tessituras among the voices but the judicious and ambiguous choice of the countertenor for all the male roles (Doctor Goujon, Doctor H., The Abbot, Monsignor, the Judge) that Xavier Sabata embodies with a lot of ease and nuance, between brutality and benevolence. Alexina B. remains above all an opera for the voice where the orchestra assumes more often than not an accompanying function. The vocality, too, balances between a declamation close to the text, in a very careful prosody, and a more lyrical dimension going up to real arias in the second and third acts. Present on all fronts (The Policeman, Madame P., Mother of Alexina and Sister Marie des Anges), the soprano Elena Copons is a long, warm and well timed voice that triggers applause (as in the XIXᵉ century!) after this bravura aria where she expresses to her daughter her unfailing love. A light and fresh soprano, Mar Esteve accumulates small roles, that of Alexina as a child, of Lea, of a convent child and of a boarding school student. We are also seduced by the sensitive and flexible soprano of the Spanish Alicia Amo who plays the character of Sara. As for the title role, entrusted to the French mezzo Lidia Vinyes-Curtis, it is overwhelming, demanding because of its deviations of tessitura and superbly defended by the singer whose scenic aplomb competes with her vocal ease. Her final monologue, interspersed with silence, when she bids farewell to Sara and her mother, gives a glimpse of a true tragedian dimension.

Michèle Tosi

Raquel García-Tomás (born 1984) : Alexina Bopera in three acts and 22 scenes, libretto by Irène Gayraud, based on the testimony of Adélaïde Herculine Barbin; directed by Marta Pazos; scenography by Max Glaenzel; costumes by Silvia Delagneau; choreography by Maria Cabeza de Vaca; lighting by Nuno Meira; video by Raquel García-Tomás. Lidia Vinyes-Curtis, mezzo-soprano, Alexina Barbin / Abel Barbin; Alicia Amo, soprano, Sara; Elena Copons, soprano, The Policeman, Mrs. P., Alexina's Mother, Sister Mary of the Angels; Mar Esteve, Alexina as a child, Lea, a convent child, a boarding school student; Xavier Sabata, countertenor, Dr. Goujon, The Doctor, Doctor H, The abbot, Monsignor, The Judge; Choir Vivaldi-IPSI-Petits chanteurs de Catalunya, students of the convent, students of the boarding school; Symphonic Orchestra of the Liceo; direction Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo.

Photos © Toni Bofill


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