- Los Elementos, opera
Music history has its truisms. One is that, no matter the period or place under discussion, music is being shaped by the rise of the middle class. And another is that, for Spanish music, it displays a mixture of Spanish and Italian traits. That truism has never been more vividly demonstrated than by this lavishly produced and offbeat disc, reproducing a sort of chamber opera by Spanish composer Antonio Literes in which Italian-style arias alternate with strophic Spanish coplas and estribillas. The date of the work is uncertain, but it seems to come from the early eighteenth century. The booklet notes give quite a bit of information about Literes and about the structure of the work itself, but they ignore key questions, such as how something so seemingly odd came to be written. Of course, it may be that the work's origins are obscure enough that there's no definitive answer. Presumably it was an elegant court entertainment on classical themes. "Los Elementos," in any event, has roles for the four medieval elements: air, earth, fire, and water, plus one for dawn. All the elements are sopranos; dawn is a countertenor (Shi-chiao Tu is quietly, silkily gorgeous -- a major find) and here is divided between a countertenor and a baritone. There is a small orchestra. The "action" consists of statements by the four elements as they await the dawn -- essentially little exclamations in recitative and short airs, duos, and ensembles in rhyme. There are 38 sections in all, so the feel is fast-paced even though nothing is really happening. Full texts are given in Spanish, French, and English. The music is varied and attractive, interspersed with pictorial effects and instrumental solos, although the personalities of the four elements are only slightly differentiated -- fire is not particularly "fiery," and the expressive quality of the music depends more on what's being described. The big ensembles, unusual for their time and place, are punchy and vigorous. Sample the voices of the sopranos, all of whom affect a rounded, foghorn-like quality that makes their ensemble singing unusually homogenous; it's a virtuoso effort, but the sound especially of Patricia Llorens, as Earth, is one that's a matter of taste. The instrumental work of Spain's Capella de Ministrers is top-notch, with difficult Baroque oboes smoothly integrated into the texture and lovely, lyrical flute playing. In general, an offbeat disc that opens up a fairly obscure period of Spanish music and will be enjoyable for any Baroque music lover.