Classical: And his bird can sing

Sixty-two years after Lorca's death, the Spanish poet, playwright and icon is alive and well and living in Britain. You've seen the film, gasped at the dance drama. Now roll up for Simon Holt's life-and-times opera, The Nightingale's to Blame.
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The Independent Culture
The Spanish poet-dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca once said: "A dead person is more alive when dead in Spain than is the case anywhere else." Except, he might have added, in his own case, in this country.

The Ian Gibson-based Hollywood movie The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, starring Andy Garcia as the assassinated poet, is due for general release in this country in January.

The Rambert Dance Company has just given Lindsay Kemp and Christopher Bruce's Lorca-inspired dance drama Cruel Garden a sold-out run at the new Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, preparatory to a British and European tour.

And tomorrow night, at the Huddersfield Festival (and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3), Opera North gives the world premiere of British composer Simon Holt's new opera, The Nightingale's to Blame, itself based upon Lorca's "erotic strip cartoon", The Love of Don Perlimplin for Belisa in the Garden.

According to the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, "Lorca cannot be Englished." But he is certainly being Spanglished. A 90-minute spectacle embracing theatre, mime, poetry, music and dance, Lindsay Kemp's Cruel Garden presents a collage of material drawn from, and reflecting upon the Spanish poet's life and times, culminating in his brutal death at the hands of Franco's Fascists in Granada in 1936.

With a brilliant score by the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda, it also offers a soft Spanish voice whispering Lorca's original texts behind the action to give the imagery its due Hispanic dimension.

Lindsay Kemp recalls how his first visit to Spain impelled him to bring Lorca's poetry to the dance stage. "All I knew then was Lorca's play Blood Wedding," he says, "but my guide book and bible on that trip were Lorca's poems - especially The Gipsy Ballads that feature so prominently in Cruel Garden - and I simply fell in love with the country.

"What inspires me is the passion, directness, imagery, violence and beauty that are so deeply rooted in Lorca through his Andalusian background and culture. If you feel Lorca, his language touches you with the full charge of your deepest feelings. Then I read Ian Gibson's The Death of Lorca. That was it. I simply had to find a way to bring the elusive essence of Lorca's writing through in a dance-drama."

He found his ideal collaborator in Christopher Bruce. "Lorca just grabs me off the page, even in translation," says the choreographer. "As a poet and dramatist, he is superb theatre. And to weave his poems and plays together in dance, to symbolise Lorca the man behind the social mask he wore, was an irresistible challenge. Carlos Miranda gave us the ideal score to work off; the Chilean director Celestino Coronado added more Hispanicism; and, like gazpacho, it all blended, but only after what seemed an eternity of sweat, agony and near-crucifixion."

Even the evocative title was hard won. "Until very nearly the first night, we couldn't think of one," Lindsay Kemp says. "And then, at a press interview in my office, I was asked: `What's the new piece called?' On my desk was a book of illustrated poems by Jean Cocteau. I happened to open it. There on the page was a drawing of a bull with banderillas adorned with flowers stuck in his withers and a matador impaled on his horns. Early in the show, Lorca is seen as a torero confronting a bull - a ferocious, taurine- looking dancer who moves like a malevolent animal out to kill. He is Lorca's fate. The ring is the `cruel garden' of flowery banderillas. I had my title. Cocteau had given it to me with his blessing." A blessing that, judging by the sell-out Sadler's Wells run, is proving just as effective today as when the piece was first devised 22 years ago.

The Bolton-born composer Simon Holt has, in his own phrase, "been absorbing Lorca for 14 years" and had already produced a whole string of works inspired by the poet's words when he embarked upon his Lorca-based opera, The Nightingale's to Blame, three years back.

So what is it about the Spanish bard that attracts him? "He just fires my imagination. His poetry makes more of an impact on my nervous system than any other poet I've ever read. In fact, I've got to the stage now where I don't dare take a book of Lorca's poems off the shelf, because my immediate reaction to reading any of them is a compulsion to set it to music." That's partly a result, the composer explains, of the musicality of Lorca's own writing. "You can feel, composing to his words, that he was an accomplished musician. His rhythms and images are music in my head. He speaks directly to me in a way I cannot define - I'm trying to find out what it is by setting it to music. But it isn't only the amazing images he creates, it's the enigma that personifies the man that somehow draws on your creativity. I'm trying to solve that mystery through music."

If poor translations have occasionally helped obfuscate, rather than elucidate, the enigma that is Lorca, Holt is more than happy with the English libretto that the Lorca scholar David Johnston has supplied for his new opera. "He has Lorca's rhythms," he says admiringly, "and it sings beautifully."

Written in 1928, staged in 1933, Lorca's self-styled "erotic strip cartoon" The Love of Don Perlimplin for Belisa in the Garden begins as its middle- aged but emotionally repressed hero is cajoled by his servant into marrying the attractive but sexually voracious Belisa. The nuptials, needless to say, turn out to be a newlywed's nightmare for the impotent Don: he later learns that, as he slept, his bride had bedded no less than five lovers (Caucasian, African, Asian, Indian and American - all the five races of the earth).

Not surprisingly this confuses Perlimplin. But it also excites him. And the subsequent rollercoaster ride that he and Belisa take through voyeurism, unrequited love and acute erotic frustration is consummated in a denouement that reveals Lorca's analysis of the uneasy alliance between love and sex.

"With its themes of frustration, illusion, love and death, Lorca's play hands it to you on a plate," says Simon Holt, whose new opera's title alludes to the poet's own avian symbol for love's illusion. "As a play, with its commedia dell'arte resonance, it's beautifully constructed," agrees Martin Duncan, director of Opera North's premiere production.

"Lorca's surviving sister Isabel considers it his finest play. The challenge confronting us is to bring Lorca's bird to life and make it sing for a British audience."

`The Nightingale's to Blame': 7.30pm tomorrow (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3) and 5pm Sunday, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (01484 430528), then on Opera North's spring tour from 24 April 1999