Ever since moving from Germany to New York City, Mexican-German tenor Emilio Pons has made a name for himself as a voice teacher and coach in the city. A cultural entrepreneur, he founded The Brownstone–Haus der Musik, in Hamilton Heights, where he graciously hosted the staff of Opera Culture News for a photoshoot of Nadine Sierra earlier this year. Since he has concentrated his efforts on teaching over the past years, we didn't want to miss the rare opportunity to see him perform one of his signature roles, "Tom Rakewell" (which he has performed in Brazil, Luxembourg, and Germany) in Mexico City's Opera de Bellas Artes new production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.
In the United States, in spite of the fact that some of the most famous singers of this generation stem directly or indirectly from Mexico –one can think of Javier Camarena, Arturo Chacón Cruz, Rolando Villazón, Ramón Vargas, and even Ailyn Pérez, whose parents are Mexican even though she was born in the USA– little is known about the operatic endeavors taking place south of the border. Long gone are the heydays of "Bellas Artes" (the name of the gorgeous Art Nouveau building where the Compañía Nacional de Ópera presents its productions), when Maria Callas, Mario del Monaco, Giuseppe di Stefano and many other legendary singers of the past sang in that house. Afflicted by a very limited budget which is negligible by comparison to that of its American and European counterparts, the National Opera Company of Mexico only puts on a small number of full-scale productions per year. In fact, since the COVID pandemic hit, the company had not put on a single new large scale production. Accordingly, the stakes were high for this production, signed by veteran Mexican stage director, Mauricio García Lozano, with set design by Jorge Ballina and costumes by Jerildy Bosch.
Undoubtedly one of the great masterworks of the 20th century, The Rake's Progress is surprisingly not often performed. In Mexico it had not been staged in more than three decades. By taking the decision to program it for the return to normal activities, the general manager of Bellas Artes, Alonso Escalante, took a huge risk...and it paid off! The audience greeted the members of the cast and of the creative team with a huge and long applause on the "second" opening night at Bellas Artes (this being a co-production with Festival Cervantino, in the state of Guanajuato, some five hours by car north of Mexico City, the production had already had its opening night on October 13 under the aegis of that festival).
The success of this production rests on both the resourcefulness of the creative team and the quality of the main roles of the cast. After the short prelude, during which Anne Truelove reminisces about the late Tom, the curtain rises to reveal what at first looks like a gloomy, improvised, inhospitable set, with nothing but a tree in the middle and large brown drapes emulating the mountains of Tom's pre-London days. However, as soon as "The Progress of the Rake begins!", as proclaimed by Nick Shadow at the end of the first scene, an ingenuous array of mobile units representing a vast array of disparate items –a motorcycle, an ATM, a dancing pole, a bathtub, a gym bench, amongst many other curious objects– is revealed. These mobile units are then rearranged in different ways to create various atmospheres, from the streets of London, to Mother Goose's brothel, Tom's London house, a red carpet event, Baba the Turk's and Tom's house, and eventually, the cemetery. These units, painted in different shades of black, white, and gray, create a stark visual contrast against the colorful and whimsical costumes designed by Ms. Bosch, which are displayed at their best in both the provocative brothel scene and, above all, in the scene featuring Baba the Turk's arrival on a gondola to a red-carpet party. It's only at the end, during Tom's mad scene in Bedlam, that these mobile units are entirely absent, revealing a large wall of mirrors and a checkered floor which create the impression of Tom's fragmented state of mind.
García Lozano demands a lot from his singers...and they deliver. He creates lively, believable, and sympathetic characters. He juxtaposes moments of great tension and drama with whimsical and hilarious ones, keeping the audience engaged at all times. From the shocking seediness of Mother Goose's brothel, where Tom ends up being stripped completely naked by the whores and raped by Mother Goose, to the hilarity of the scene where Nick suggests Tom to marry Baba the Turk, who is at first presented as a mechanical doll of sorts played by a male actor, to the superficiality of Baba the Turk's red-carpet introduction and the deeply touching, devastating final scene at the mad house, García Lozano masterfully creates a series of contrasting yet coherent scenes.
Vocally, the three main roles were ideally cast. The greatest ovation of the night was received by the young Spanish soprano Marina Monzó. Hers is an incredibly flexible, agile, and above all, pristinely tuned, free and resonant instrument. Her famous aria, "No word from Tom... I go to him!" was delivered with absolute confidence and precision, bringing down the house. Beautiful, svelte and youthful, she possesses all the vocal, musical and physical features to create a compelling Anne Truelove. Her only shortcoming was her English diction, which unfortunately proved to be completely unintelligible most of the evening. Ms. Monzó is nevertheless certainly poised for a major international career.
Tom Rakewell poses the greatest musical, vocal and acting challenges of the opera. It is a long and complicated role. It demands a highly intelligent, musical singer, capable of delivering a very sophisticated text with ease in spite of the rhythmical and melodic challenges of Stravinsky's writing. It also demands great dynamic control, and above all, great stamina, since Tom sings in eight out of the nine scenes that comprise the opera. On opening night at Bellas Artes, Mr. Pons sang with a clear tone and a timbre of rare beauty, rising to all the challenges of this complicated role. His text delivery was remarkable; of all the cast members, he was the only one who could be understood without issue and who displayed no trace of a foreign accent. His acting, too, was exemplary, fulfilling all the demands of the production which demands great athleticism, deep character development, and no misgivings about bearing it all ––literally and figuratively–– on stage. The graveyard scene and the Bedlam scene, in particular, were standouts of the evening, his singing and acting so arresting that one could hear a pin drop in the house. He deservedly got a big ovation from the public as well.
In the role of Nick Shadow, making his Mexican debut was the French/British bass-baritone Thomas Dear. A handsome devil, pun intended, Mr. Dear also possesses all the vocal, musical and acting qualities required to perform his role convincingly. His towering stature and deep, sonorous bass-baritone which only on occasion sounded slightly muffled, cut a very compelling figure. Musically and dramatically he was very solid and also convincingly portrayed the various facets of his character, affable, charming, and seductive at first, and dangerously menacing in the graveyard scene.
The orchestra of Bellas Artes was brilliantly conducted by the young Mexican conductor Ivan López Reynoso, who is enjoying a budding international career which has taken him to various European theaters and recently saw him make his US debut at the Santa Fe opera. A singer (countertenor) in his own right, he commanded the orchestra at all times, which played with great clarity and provided exemplary support for the singers. A special mention should be reserved for the trumpet player who perfectly executed the difficult auction scene. The quality of Mexico's Bellas Artes orchestra was a great, positive surprise. The chorus, by contrast, was very disappointing. They sounded ill-prepared, constantly rushing and out of sync with the conductor, and their English was heavily accented and indecipherable.
In spite of some shortcomings, overall, this production was a resounding success, and one can say without a doubt that Mexican audiences were treated to a memorable evening.
Review written by Diana Amati, Founder of Opera Culture News & Magazine in NYC.