Notes and Editorial Reviews
Based on a drama by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Poul Rovsing Olsen's one-act opera Belisa (1966) turns convention on its head with a surrealistic story of a young, attractive woman who marries a wealthy older man. Bored with her husband even on their wedding night, Belisa has five lovers who enter her bedroom through the open doors of her balcony, and she makes no secret of them. Her husband Don Perlimplin alternates in expressing emotions of embittered frustration and forgiveness. But there is a sixth lover who fascinates Belisa most of all; she has never seen his face though he appears to her in a red cloak and sends her passionate love letters. Belisa agrees to meet this mysterious lover
in her garden, but Don Perlimplin appears and tells her that he intends to kill the man that she claims to love above all others. He rushes off and moments later a man in a red cloak staggers out and dies, stabbed, at Belisa's feet. When she removes his cloak, she discovers that the mystery man is none other than her own husband.
This is great stuff for opera, and Olsen's music fits the story perfectly. The idiom is largely atonal, often textural, but with strong tonal leanings and (especially in Belisa's music) frequent recourse to Arab/Eastern exoticism to complement the surreal, sultry eroticism of the story. The orchestration is very sensitive and colorful, and questions of style notwithstanding, the music serves the drama at every point. At a concise 72 minutes, and with each scene broken up into a series of pointed arias, duets, choruses, and interludes (there are six characters in all, including two gossiping "household spirits"), the music grabs your imagination and sustains the work's modest length very impressively.
Certainly Tamás Veto and the Odense Symphony Orchestra play magnificently, and the principals, especially soprano Eir Inderhaug as the title character and baritone Sten Byriel's very sympathetic Don Perlimplin, acquit themselves with real distinction. Beautifully balanced, natural sonics and attractive, elegant packaging--including texts and translations--complete the picture. This one's a gem. [4/16/2004]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Full review from FANFARE Magazine:
This is a masterpiece. As a listener, I find it a source of delight. As a critic, I find another reminder of how much music is out there that one will only know if the fates provide the opportunity. Is Poul Rovsing Olsen (1922–1982) a one-hit wonder or is
Belisa the tip of an entire body of work that one is significantly poorer for not knowing? I am in no position to say at this point, since I have to admit that I had never heard of the composer before this CD arrived. Positive does not begin to describe my response to this little opera, which deserves to rank with
Bluebeard’s Castle, Il tabarro, Erwartung, or
Cavalleria rusticana in its depiction of obsessive love leading to tragedy. The only reason I can possibly give for its being unknown to the greater musical world is the fact that the libretto is in Danish.
Based on a typically obsessive play by Garcia Lorca (translated into Danish by Paul la Cour), it tells of the aging Don Perlimplin, a scholar who lives for his books, taking in marriage the sensual, unbridled Belisa who is constantly, continually unfaithful to her aging spouse. Don Perlimplin loves Belisa wildly, forgiving her infidelities with a shrug of “I am old, you are young.” She becomes obsessed with a stranger in a red cloak who never allows her to see his face. Don Perlimplin tells her he knows of her obsession and suggests he will sacrifice himself for her great love. In the final scene, the stranger, shrouded in his red cloak, staggers to a prearranged meeting with Belisa. He is revealed to be Don Perlimplin who has stabbed himself—he is her great love and at the same time he is the sacrifice to her great love. Realizing the truth at last, Belisa goes mad.
The composer was apparently quite important in Danish cultural life. A lawyer, critic, and ethnomusicologist as well as a composer, Rovsing Olsen (it is a double last name without hyphen) drafted Denmark’s copyright law as well as publishing important studies of music from the Middle East. His teachers included Messiaen. The most obvious connection to the Frenchman is a similar fluidity of idiom which embraces everything from note rows to the sort of soaring lyricism one associates with Puccini and the Italian verismo composers. There are essentially only two main roles, Don Perlimplin and Belisa, who embody the stereotypical roles of the baritone aging suitor and sprightly soprano flirt that have been a staple of opera since at least
La serva padrona (which would be an interesting pairing with the present score). The mother of Belisa, Marcolla, the housekeeper, and the two household spirits who gossip during the couple’s wedding night are all cameos, and the chorus is entirely offstage. The opera is structured in 21 separate sections. What impressed me as much as anything is the sureness with which the composer uses his resources. The shift from typically post-serial
parlando chattering to full-throated and largely consonant lyricism is utterly seamless. The orchestra is used in chamber fashion. Although no details of the scoring are given, it suggests the sort of resourcefulness Strauss used in his
Ariadne auf Naxos.
The performance is wonderful, beautifully sung, played, and recorded. This is a must have.
John Story, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Belisa by Poul Rovsing Olsen
Eir Inderhaug (Soprano),
Sten Byriel (Bass Baritone),
Marianne Rorholm (Soprano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
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