Fiery ‘Fuego’ casts a spell on flamenco fans

What a difference a day makes! After the ‘Gala Zarzuela’ performance with Placido Domingo on Thursday, the Royal Opera House Muscat saw a single performance of ‘Fuego’ on Friday evening. It was an 80-minute dance production based loosely on Manuel de Falla’s ‘El Amor Brujo’, designed in 1989 by the innovative Alicante choreographer Antonio Gades and performed by the Gades Dance Company, one of the best exponents of flamenco in Spain. In its original incarnation ‘Fuego’ was conceived as a film, in collaboration with the eminent movie director, Carlos Saura. The ‘scenic interpretation’ experienced in Muscat on Friday mercifully had no scenery, backdrops or projections. It was performed on a dark stage designed by Gerardo Vera together with lighting designer, Dominique You. The only props were a few stools used in the bodega-flamenco scene, the central pivot of the production.
The synopsis of the drama given in the programme notes was somewhat long and rambling, and also unnecessary as the performance could be interpreted as a fusion of three styles: primordial, ritualistic dance with only rhythmic accompaniment, the superb 1915 score of ‘El Amor Brujo’ (Love, the Magician) by Manuel de Falla, and some pure flamenco folk song and dance additions. Fusions of styles or genres can become awkward and contrived, falling short of excellence in any field. Fortunately, with such superb artistic minds engaged in this project, the result was a brilliant blend of sound and movement.
The curtain rose to reveal a score of men fighting in pairs with sticks to the beat of foot stamping and clapping. It represented a fight to the death in ritualised, rhythmic dance-form. As light transformed the mood to dawn in a settlement, the women appeared as washer-women, course and rustic, in skirts and blouses in shades of dusky pink to earthy rust. A real Flamenco band appeared from the darkness on stage. Guitarists Solera and Ramon Jimenez accompanied the singers Juanares, Manuel Palacin and the smoky voice of Maria Carmona. The corps de ballet had to become folksingers, like peasants in a rough, earthy chorus at an informal gathering.
Juxtaposed against the popular styles of flamenco and Spanish folksongs, arranged for this production by Ricardo Freire, was the fiery score of Falla’s ballet, ‘El Amor Brujo’, played by the Orchestra Fondazione Arena di Verona from the pit with all its strength and ferocity, under the capable baton of Maestro Jordi Bernàcer. It is unusual to see a live performance of this ballet outside Spain, so to be treated to the experience here, however fragmented, was a rare privilege. Rarer still is the opportunity to witness true flamenco in its raw, unpolished form. The central scene allowed the audience to eavesdrop on a flamenco convention in a mountain taverna, with small groups on wicker chairs taking turns at the raunchy, seductive dance-form, each one more sensual and provocative than the last, to the accompaniment of the on-stage musicians. From the pit unseen came the throaty, full-voiced sound of guest singer, Sara Salado, adding authenticity to the flamenco spirit.
Towards the end of the play, Falla’s famous fire-dance accompanied the final primordial ritual, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, where Candela almost danced herself to death in an accelerating frenzy. Almost, but as in all good folk tales, the story concluded with a gypsy wedding, bearing the happy couple high on the group’s shoulders to celebrate, embrace and dance a tango! A breath-taking encore of virtuoso hand-claps from the full company with guitar chords was deftly directed, master-class-style by Guest-dancer, Jose Huertas, to satisfy the demands of an enthralled audience. Some audience members were ecstatic at the quality of achievement, and left the auditorium proclaiming the performance, “a-once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
‘Arising out of magical Andalusian folk-myths this classically elegant, dream-like ballet enacts the tale of a beautiful gypsy girl tormented by a spell cast by her dead husband’s ghost’. The demanding lead role of Candela was brilliantly danced by Principal, Esmeralda Manzanas. The Principal role of her fiancé, Carmelo, was taken by the superb 48-year-old Sevillano choreographer and director of his own company, Jose Huertas. The present Artistic Director of the company, Stella Arauzo, performed the stylised, ritualistic role of the Sorceress (adapted from Falla’s Magician) with gravitas, while Miguel Angel Rojas danced the Spectre (of Candela’s dead husband) with an almost violent energy, curiously dressed in white shirt and black trousers like a malignant waiter.
Aficionados were treated to an extra helping of flamenco, hosted by the solo artists from Fuego, at the Opera Galleria on Saturday for a free lunchtime performance, up close and informal. On the impromptu stage, Raquel Ortega of the flamenco family-clan clattered, tapped on her toes and her heels, hair swinging in wild euphoria, as she bewitched the entranced onlookers so early in the day. Ramon Jimenez provided accompaniment and a fine virtuoso ‘solo de guitarra’, while Juanares improvised some Andalusian vocal lines, emphasising clear links to their Moorish, gypsy roots. Guest dancer Jose Huertas showed some very flashy footwork with energy not expunged by his stellar performance as Carmelo the night before, and larger-than-life Maria Carmona earned massive adulation as she flirted, stomped, pouted and sung deliciously with her iconic 50-fags-day flamenco voice. It was a wonderful conclusion to a whirlwind weekend, and a chance to meet and greet stars of a world-renowned Spanish style whom most can only dream of in their castles in the air.

Georgina Benison