Teatro São Luiz 2024: Felizmente Há Luar

New Opera Premiere in Lisbon Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution

By Ching Chang
(Photo credit: ©EGEAC, José Frade – photographer )

An extraordinary new opera premiered last week at Lisbon’s historic Teatro São Luiz, called “Felizmente Há Luar!” (loosely translatable as “fortunately the moonlight still shines”) by the prolific Portuguese composer Alexandre Delgado. Commissioned by the Orquestra Filarmónica Portuguesa, this was the most significant national opera premiere in recent years, and perhaps the most important new work to emerge this year, within the spirit of Portugal’s nationwide 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1974 Carnation Revolution — the defining historic event which ended 45 years of António Salazar’s fascist “Estado Novo” regime, and successfully launched Portugal’s transition into a modern, humanistic European democracy.

Based upon the celebrated eponymous play by Luís de Sttau Monteiro written in 1961, the work dramatizes the milieu leading to the hanging execution of the historical figure of Gomes Freire de Andrade, a military general who was highly decorated while under the service to the Portuguese Crown of his time, but whose fealty was arbitrarily questioned. He was later turned into a scapegoat out of political convenience during the 1817 liberal revolt. These events triggered other conflicts over the ensuing decades, and eventually led to the extinction of Portugal’s eleven centuries-old monarchy in 1910.

But rather than being pure historical drama safely distanced from the author’s contemporaneity, Sttau Monteiro’s play carries a clearly implied parallel narrative, sharply critical of Salazar’s totalitarian regime of the author’s own era. So much so that the play did not escape the dictatorship’s censure, and provoked the persecution and eventual imprisonment of Sttau Monteiro himself. His play was first staged in Paris 1969, but it did not receive a premiere production in Portugal until 1975, one year after the Carnation Revolution deposed the dictatorship.

Alexandre Delgado’s operatic adaptation is deeply respectful of its source, for the tale resonates deeply with the composer’s own family history: Delgado’s grandfather was similarly persecuted and assassinated by the infamous Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), Salazar’s secret police in charge of torture and extrajudicial executions of political dissidents. Nevertheless, this new opera has the benefit of a post-revolutionary perspective, a vantage point the original source play lacked, and at its Lisbon premiere, it was possible to dispel some of the narrative’s gloom with the beams of moonlight alluded from its title, when a sense of hope reappears in the opera’s final ensemble, much like in the spirit of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s “Candide.”

The music of “Felizmente Há Luar” is melodically vigorous, surprisingly rhythmic while conveying restless continuous motion. The score contains various unusual compound meters, syncopated dances and hemiolas, peppered with fragments sourced from various refrains from revolutionary songs and anthems, and even the theme from Handel’s Sarabande in D minor. The melodic treatments are robust and through-composed, avoiding the gratuitous tonal landings which might signal applause pauses. Conductor Osvaldo Ferreira led an energetic reading of convincing fluidity, showcasing a highly original orchestration that makes ample use of the woodwinds, harp and a varied percussion set, while attenuating the role of strings within the sonic whole.

Resourcefully staged by veteran opera director Allex Aguilera on a minimalist set, the anachronistic production was populated by an entirely national cast of singing actors, including some of the finest voices in Portugal. The clear stand out was Silvia Sequeira as Mathilde, whose creamy, seamless soprano showed distinct spinto qualities, while producing soaring, weightless top notes as she sung the role of Gomes Freire’s wife.

The role of Governor Miguel Forjaz, the lead conspirator of Gomes Freire’s sham persecution was sang by baritone Tiago Amado Gomes, pairing his incisive vocalism with a careful and perversely constructed characterization of Forjaz as an archetypal “evil homosexual.” The veteran tenor Carlos Guilherme was assigned the role of Principal Sousa, another one of the co-conspirators, sung with handsome lyricism and authority. The key role of Marshal Beresford was potently sung by the prodigious bass-baritone André Henriques, one of the most exciting singing actors Portugal has produced in recent years.

Rounding off the uniformly excellent supporting cast, soprano Raquel Mendes communicated the anxiety and fear of the nameless masses, with a limpid sound of utmost sincerity, as the allegorical “voice of a woman.” A highlight that comes late into the opera was baritone Christian Lujan touching, deeply felt rendition of an eulogy, sung to Mathilde by Antonio (Gomes Freire’s close friend). The young tenor Pedro Cruz displayed perspicacious characterization and polished lyricism as Vicente, the reluctant informer to the conspirators.

But perhaps one of the most noteworthy elements of this opera will be the hauntingly beautiful choruses Delgado has penned for the work. Reminiscent of the chorus of exiled Palestinians from John Adams’ “Death of Klinghoffer,” Delgado’s choral writing is strikingly intense and demanding, both textured and sustained, often sending the upper voices brilliantly above the staff. the Coro ProArt (prepared by maestro Filipa Palhares) met the assignment’s challenges with decisiveness and aplomb.

As a contemporary Portuguese composer, Alexandre Delgado has had several compositions performed internationally, and while operas on nationalistic themes like “Felizmente Há Luar” are often challenging for foreign audiences lacking proper historical understanding, the potency and universality of the themes presented may well justify an international staging of this work, during these times in the world. Though the piece is through-composed, one would hope some of the choice individual sections may be excised from the whole for more frequent inclusion in concert performances.


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