La Tentación de San Antonio

Local Arts Reviews

La Tentación de San Antonio

McCullough Theatre, through March 7

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

In the desert, St. Anthony was tempted by the flesh, but the notion of the artist separate from society provides an even more obsessive temptation for painters, writers, and composers – a scab that artists keep picking at, reopening century after century. Composer Luis Jaime Cortez gets in a few fresh scratches with La Tentación de San Antonio, his opera based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert currently receiving its American premiere by the UT Opera Theatre under the direction of Robert DeSimone.

Cortez's score is tightly woven with the story. He draws us in with imitative counterpoint, following the canon of a thousand years of sacred music to create a hair-shirt fabric for the third-century saint. The rest of the opera is about its unraveling. Here, Anthony hasn't mortified the flesh but has repressed it. Alone in the desert, those desires seep out through the cracks of his subconscious, full of indictments that his monastic vocation was a cop-out. This is effectively conveyed by baritone Salvador Ginori, who also performed Anthony in the opera's 1998 world premiere. He negotiates the craggy melodies with devotional accuracy that underscores his human failings when all hell breaks loose.

Flaubert presages Freud, but where Freud would more typically draw on figures from safely dead Greek mythology to show how humans project the subconscious, Flaubert brings in figures from Christianity – more controversial for readers and certainly more troubling for Flaubert's Anthony. However, when the opera crowds the stage with Isis, the Queen of Sheba, Diana, Helen of Troy, and a dozen others, it is all but impossible to tell who's who. Still, to all these figures the student singers give in turns alluring and terrifying voice.

Michael Hite dresses the motley crew of spectres in fantastic costumes from many centuries and cultures that would certainly have perplexed Anthony. Hite serves Cortez's Boschian and Flaubert's Brueghelian muses well, but in so short an opera we are often too aware of the outlandish outfits – what the hell was that silver cowboy hat for? A wholly folkloric approach could have derailed the opera, but Hite's use of Mexican dyes and religious iconography supports the Spanish text and Catholic imagery. Despite some décolletage, congressman Joe Barton would find the opera acceptable in the family hour.

The score is unabashedly indebted to Schönberg and Berg. It is troubling music that shows that the story of existential isolation was the main course of modernism. This one-act pill offers no cure, so the music can't resolve nicely, but the student orchestra led by David Neely vents its full power. Nino Rota's circus theme from Fellini's 81/2 is like a tune of cloaked meaningfulness that sneaks in from our subconscious. In both works the hero is torn between Catholic guilt and memories of an unrequited adolescent lust and can't sort reality from imagination.

There's too much here to take in in one pass. The supertitles (which need a thoughtful edit) are necessary. But the high placement of the screen makes it impossible to follow the action and catch the words, and poor synchronization adds unwanted confusion in an opera about fantasy invading reality.

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La Tentación de San Antonio, Luis Jaime Cortez, UT Opera Theatre, Robert DeSimone, Salvador Ginori, Michael Hite

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