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Azguime: Itinerário do Sal on DVD

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Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
399 years of opera… I’ve just watched Itinerário do Sal (Salt Itinerary) by contemporary Portuguese composer Miguel Azguime, pushing my temporal operatic span to almost four centuries, given that the oldest opera that I’ve seen is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo composed in 1607, and this one is from 2006.


It’s proposed, in terms of classification, as an “electroacoustic and multimedia opera.” It is available on DVD. There are two nice extras – a 35-minute fascinating interview with the composer, and a 10-minute documentary with the audience, with dozens of people who were walking out of the theater being stopped and asked the question: “Is this really an opera?” The answers are insightful and interesting – and I’d definitely agree with the predominant opinion that yes, this piece is definitely an opera.



OK, so, I started by doing my “homework,” that is, by reading the two short essays, the biographies, and the libretto. At one point I was thinking, “oh boy, I want my money back, can I just send this crap back without even watching it?” This sort of prejudiced view was brought about by certain phrases from one of the essays: “It is as though the sound wrote the sound itself. The same might be said of the writing: the lines trace their own possibility as a written form.” [Whaaaat??? Says Almaviva]

It continues: “Sound and line are notations in the second degree: the being that they designate is the being that they themselves are.” “The signs become the actual music and the body another disincarnate sign object.” “By means of the multiplying effect of mediations and sensorial saturation that they imply, the digital machine allows the textualization of sense in the sensors, the sonic effects and the projections. The digitalization that affects language itself is manifest in the combinatorial logic that regulates the phrasal structures and in the paronymy which determines variations in the words.”

By now I’m thinking –“Holly crap! Where is the exit door??? What kind of pseudointellectual drivel is this?”

Then I decide to calm down and read the libretto before I throw this thing in the garbage can. It doesn’t reassure me at all. Here are some parts of the libretto, for your delight:

“Blable blebla blelebela
Belelabas labalebe
Lebalabele belebala
Labalaba balalabe”

And another part:

“tataaca… taacata… tatacaa… cataata…”

(It makes no sense in Portuguese either).

OK, I’m thinking, where is some_guy who recommended this crap to me? Is he going to refund me my $30? I’m feeling pretty angry, and thinking that this was not what I had planned for my day of watching opera with my wife.

“Oh well,” I tell my wife, ”it’s not likely that some_guy will send us a check in the mail for our trouble and I doubt that we have a case for a legal suit for emotional damage, so we may as well pop this BS into the DVD player and have a laugh at the excesses of vanguard contemporary so-called composers.”

That’s when this thing blew us away and left us speechless.

Oh! My! God! This is a brilliant piece of work, wildly creative, utterly fascinating! We watched it with a smile on our faces from the first through the 50th minute, and regretted it when it ended! We wanted more!

Mr. Azguime, while trained in flute and piano as well, is primarily a percussionist. Most of what we might call orchestration in this piece – I mean, metaphorically speaking since there is no orchestra – is percussion, augmented by electronic means. But wow, this is probably the most interesting percussion I’ve ever seen. He does his percussion with his *voice*, his fingers, and a sort of electronic table (I’ve seen one of those in a friend’s house) that makes reverberations out of a magnetic field, and you play it by waving a metallic object above it. What is most interesting about this, is the fact that he uses *words* as percussion elements.

And here, a strong caveat: many of the most genial aspects of the work have to do with how he uses and twists the phonemes of the Portuguese language, and with his puns and word play. If you don’t speak Portuguese you’ll miss much of the fun. But there’s still fun to be had even without the linguistic aspects.

It is a one-man show. It’s just Mr. Azguime on stage, with his weird percussion table, and two large video screens behind him. He “sings,” acts, and plays his percussion. I’d say, yes, it’s singing, since he uses his voice to produce a number of effects that do have a musical quality, in terms of using the timbre of his voice, having rhythmic intervals, etc. And besides, percussion is music too.

As for the acting, it is simply phenomenal. Mr. Azguime does stuff with his facial expressions that you must see to believe in it, like for example in the “coughing” sequence. The video component is very interesting as well. We’re in the company of an accomplished and intelligent artist.

While there is no plot so to speak, the three parts *are* coherent, make sense, and show a logical progression. They start with a good dose of metalanguage, playing with the concept of the presence versus the absence of the author, in a reflection that is a bit of opera-within-the-opera as it introduces scenes of the public entering the theater and supposedly asking themselves – has it started already? – while the author/performer/composer is sitting on the stage but visible just as a shadow. Multiple images of eyes stare at the public (there is a nice explanation for his idea of these eyes, in his interview).

The second part brings us to the core of the message being conveyed here, one that Jacques Lacan and his disciples would love: essentially, the power of the signifier: the formal envelope of sound that constitutes words, the materiality of sound itself with its aspects of moving air, vibrations, waves – and how the combination of these elements can transmit meaning.

Mr. Azguime knows sounds, and lavishly demonstrates his expertise. We can almost feel the oscillation of sound waves, and we can see them as well on the screen behind him. He plays with a pen as a writing instrument that can produce sounds on his percussion table. Letters are projected behind him and on top of him, they combine to form signifiers, and they begin to shape up a story that while subtle and abstract, does make sense: the story of creativity itself, the attempt to answer the question of what exactly is this thing that an artist can transmit to his audience.

Finally the third part brings us to the meaning of his title, the Salt Itinerary. Salt is white. Mr. Azguime talks to us about a light that encompasses everything to the point that nothing can be seen any longer, just a white blindness. It reminds me of Mr. Azguime’s fellow Portuguese artist José Saramago, the Nobel Prize winning author of Blindness, a book in which the metaphorical epidemic of blindness that hits Portugal has all inhabitants but one seeing only white in front of them. When pushed to its limit, the creative/artistic process takes an itinerary that goes from the presence/absence of the artist, to an attempt to transmit, to an excess of transmitted meaning (the infinite combinations of signifiers) that ends up obliterating everything, first in an oppresive black confluence of letters and words, next into a vast whiteness akin to death.

Salt is also life and spice, he tells us later in his interview, but I do see in the ending of his opera a notion of a complete arc that touches some kind of impossibility, of fading and disappearing into a sea of whiteness. The Epilogue opens with the words: “Out there / outside the itinerary / there’s no salt / there’s not enough salt for them / and not enough sun.” It sounds quite nihilistic to me.

This work is profoundly expressive, and causes inside the very being of the spectator a deep emotional experience.

Is it opera, after all? You bet. Mr. Azguime says in his interview that he thought that calling this piece “opera” would be provocative – as opposed to something like “multimedia one-man show with musical (i.e., the percussion kind) and theatrical aspects,” and he does realize that it doesn’t fit the frame of 19th century operas, for example. But then, he thought of Monteverdi, and decided that he is entitled to calling his work an opera. It is actually closer to Monteverdi than 19th century opera is. It puts on stage a relatively static singer/actor who throws at the audience a modulated sea of sounds that are used to convey a dramatic arc.

399 years later if he could be here among us to witness this, I think that Monteverdi would have liked this piece. I did. Actually, I loved it!

Highly recommended. Thanks, some_guy! You don’t need to mail me that refund after all!
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Classical Music , Opera

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