Opera: For the love of Belisa

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The Independent Culture
SIMON HOLT'S first opera - premiered at Huddersfield by Opera North as part of a retrospective of his music - is based on The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden by Federico Garci Lorca.

Let us be clear: the nightingale is certainly not to blame for the disastrous marriage between the ageing bibliophile Don Perlimplin and the beautiful Belisa, whom he hears singing (like a nightingale?) from a balcony. For this he has to thank his pushy maid and the girl's bird-brained mother, comically portrayed in this production by Frances McCafferty in a wonderfully extravagant hat of many feathers.

The wedding over, Perlimplin, stripped of his frock coat and powdered wig, prophetically admits to Belisa that the sensation of love had hit him as if someone had "drawn a scalpel across his throat". He realises that though he has not got the strength to enjoy Belisa's body, plenty of others have. But now that he has tasted love he can afford to sacrifice himself, extraordinarily and movingly.

Against Neil Irish's colourful sets, in the style of a children's pop- up book, Martin Duncan's production is considerate to the small cast already wracked by a score demanding a terrific act of concentration. The singing is enormously impressive. Donald Maxwell as Perlimplin, is on stage for nearly the whole of the opera, reaching parts of his voice that surely even he did not know existed. As the coloratura Belisa, Patricia Rozario successfully combines vulnerability with unquenchable desire. With Fiona Kimm in hectoring mode as his maid, it is difficult to understand why Perlimplin has not sought escape into marriage long before now. Two duendes, here acrobatic sprites or spirits, turn a mean cartwheel as well as showing off their vocal agility.

The opera's dialogue is emphasised by darkly threatening instrumental interludes, played by just 16 players with no violins, all but swamping the opera's delicately lyrical aspect. The music unfolds with such relentless intensity that one cherishes the few breathing spaces. I suspect that the singers relish them too and wish for a few more. Perlimplin's emotional awakening at the heart of the opera when the nightingale sings, on clarinet, and later when a sultry trumpet solo emerges from the dark of the auditorium, offer rare moments of repose.

In fact, Holt's handling of instrumental colour and texture is one of the more assured features in a score whose allusions to Spanish music and its idiom is one of the work's most fascinating and attractive features. Where Lorca chose a Scarlatti sonata for the prologue of the play, Holt opens the opera with an extended piano solo for Perlimplin, a pre-echo perhaps of his short, exotically scored piece for piano and chamber orchestra Eco-Pavan, engagingly premiered the following day at Huddersfield by Rolf Hind and the London Sinfonietta.