If paint­ings could sing

Los Bu­fones ex­plores the world of Velázquez

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - James M. Keller


os Bu­fones, a new work by the Santa Fe-based com­poser Ron Strauss, will be un­veiled in a four-per­for­mance run be­gin­ning this Thurs­day, Jan. 19, and the first ques­tion one might rea­son­ably ask is what its genre is. His score calls it “a song cy­cle for the the­atre” and his web­site ex­pands that to “an oper­atic song cy­cle for the the­atre.” The head­ing on the work’s printed li­bretto seems more non­com­mit­tal in its am­bi­gu­ity about genre. There he calls it a cosita, a “lit­tle thing” — more specif­i­cally, a “Cosita for the The­atre (with Mu­sic) Based on the Jester Por­traits of Velázquez.”

“Orig­i­nally I was think­ing of just do­ing a con­cert piece, 40 or 50 min­utes, for just six voices and pi­ano,” Strauss told Pasatiempo. Each of the singers would por­tray a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter fa­mous from the can­vases of Diego Velázquez, painter to the court of Philip IV dur­ing the Golden Age of 17th-cen­tury Spain. The char­ac­ters would not be the lofty no­bles of Philip’s cir­cle, but rather the jesters and dwarfs — the so-called bu­fones — who in­vest the paint­ings with an un­usual de­gree of hu­man­ity and a sense of the enig­matic. “The songs would be what these bu­fones would sing at a court en­ter­tain­ment.”

But then a prac­ti­cal prob­lem arose: Those songs would fill half of a con­cert nicely, but what would the re­main­der of such a pro­gram be? Some­one floated the idea that Velázquez him­self might ap­pear as a char­ac­ter in some story in­volv­ing the bu­fones, but Strauss shied away from that on the grounds that it would de­mand more of a plot than he wanted to get in­volved with. In the end, the first half is pretty much the song cy­cle he had en­vi­sioned from the out­set, al­though the pi­ano ac­com­pa­ni­ment has now been en­larged to in­volve a trio of vi­o­lin, cello, and pi­ano. Each of the songs of­fers “a por­trait in a mono­logue,” in­tro­duc­ing a half-dozen fig­ures sprung to life from Velázquez’s paint­ings: Pablo de Val­ladolid, one of Philip’s jesters; Don Se­bastián de Morra, a dwarf ac­quired to be a com­pan­ion for the king’s son; Ni­co­l­a­sito, an Ital­ian dwarf given to Philip’s wife; Don Juan de Austria, one of the court’s chief jesters; Don Diego de Acedo, a dwarf-jester who also served as keeper of the king’s seal; and Maribár­bola, a Ger­man dwarf who was tu­tor to the king’s daugh­ter. Af­ter in­ter­mis­sion, all of these char­ac­ters join to present a court en­ter­tain­ment ti­tled “Songs at a Ban­quet.”

Dur­ing the Golden Age, such fes­tiv­i­ties might have in­volved num­bers por­tray­ing gods or fig­ures from clas­si­cal mythol­ogy, of­ten un­der­stood to be al­le­gories of facets of the king him­self. An un­der­cur­rent of in­di­rect mean­ing also in­hab­its Strauss’ piece. “They’re re­ally em­broiled in this courtly world. Sev­eral peo­ple have com­mented that it seems so timely, in a way. Here they are in this po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion they don’t nec­es­sar­ily ap­prove of, but they’re pretty much stuck in it. Their songs [in­clude] some satir­i­cal com­men­tary on hu­man foibles, the seven deadly sins, things that al­ways trip up ev­ery­body. They re­fer to peo­ple in the court, to the king, but al­ways obliquely, al­ways masked. That’s what I imag­ine you would sing in a sit­u­a­tion like that; you re­fer to, or act out greed or com­pas­sion, to give those [in power] some op­tions to go­ing full tilt on their rot­ten way.”

Strauss has been in­trigued by the art of Velázquez for a long time. “I wrote a piece based on some of his paint­ings in the late 1980s, a cou­ple of years af­ter I came here to Santa Fe. It was a duet for harp and gui­tar. I didn’t feel right nam­ing the piece specif­i­cally af­ter Velázquez, but I was def­i­nitely think­ing about the palace of the Al­cázar, the king, his chil­dren, his wife, the peo­ple in the court. Not many pain­ters do that for me.” He grew fas­ci­nated by the artist’s works, which he knew only from re­pro­duc­tions in books un­til he fi­nally trav­eled to Madrid two years ago and saw the Velázquez paint­ings dis­played in the Prado. By that time he had al­ready com­posed Los Bu­fones. “It was like meet­ing a pen pal,” he said. “Las Men­i­nas —Ihadno idea of its size and how it was done. The same with the por­traits of Don Se­bastián and Don Diego — those two speak to me a lot. Those peo­ple are still ‘alive’ when you see the paint­ings.”

Al­though he has done a good deal of read­ing about the artist and the his­tory of Philip’s court, Strauss has come to ac­cept that facts are rel­a­tively scarce about Velázquez as well as the dwarfs and jesters. That freed him to in­vent de­tails and sit­u­a­tions. In fact, not all of the char­ac­ters he por­trayed over­lapped in real life; he refers to Los Bu­fones as “my fic­tion of time-space at the court of Philip IV.” His in­vented back sto­ries helped fuel his de­ci­sions as a com­poser. “Ni­co­l­a­sito — he’s the boy on the far right of Las Men­i­nas, with his foot on the dog. His real name was Ni­co­las Per­tusato, that be­ing the name of a cape at the south­ern tip of Italy. Mar­i­ana of Austria picked him up while she was on her way to Madrid to marry Philip. I thought that if he came from Italy I might start his mu­sic with an Ital­ianate theme, like some­thing Rossini might have sketched, a lit­tle ges­ture. That’s his theme song. His mind kind of wan­ders in his song, but he keeps com­ing back to that Rossini theme. Maybe he re­mem­bers it as a lul­laby.”

Strauss wrote the li­bretto in English, but from the be­gin­ning he in­tended for the piece to per­formed in Span­ish, which seemed es­sen­tial for a work about the court of Madrid. The li­bretto was trans­lated by María Cristina López into the ver­sion that will be sung, but the English texts will be pro­jected for the ben­e­fit of those whose Span­ish, like Strauss’, is lim­ited to a fleet­ing high-school ac­quain­tance. “The piece had hum­ble ori­gins, but it has be­come a big deal.” It will be given in what he de­scribes as a “mildy the­atri­cal­ized con­cert stag­ing” with di­rec­tion by Jean Moss and cos­tumes by Cheryl Odom that are based on the out­fits de­picted in the paint­ings. The per­for­mances take place at Al­bu­querque’s Na­tional His­panic Cul­tural Cen­ter, but it is be­ing co-pro­duced by Santa Fe’s Teatro Paraguas. Word on the street is that all con­cerned would like to fol­low up with a run in Santa Fe, but as things now stand that is in the realm of hopes and dreams. For the mo­ment, the court of Philip IV re­mains an hour away — not an oner­ous de­tour to wit­ness a royal ban­quet that, as the dwarf Don Se­bastián sings, prom­ises to be “an en­gag­ing amuse­ment as well as a pleas­ant aid to your di­ges­tion.”


Diego Velázquez: Por­trait of Se­bastián de Morra, 1645; top, The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, 1645; both in Museo del Prado, Madrid

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