one of the most versatile artists of the Netherlands

Caruso a Cuba – reviews (in English)

De Volkskrant (Biëlla Luttmer), 4 March 2019:
Caruso a Cuba proves that asking existential questions can result in a stunning performance
Micha Hamel’s composition unfolds like a hallucinatory dream.

The curtain rises on the early-20th-century opera legend Enrico Caruso, sleeping on a giant LP. In Micha Hamel’s new operatic masterpiece Caruso a Cuba, Caruso the person becomes the lead role. A crackly recording of his voice singing an aria from Verdi’s opera Aida plays from the speakers of Amsterdam’s International Theatre. As he wakes, he sees three figures – two older people in traditional Afro-Cuban Lukumi dress, and a beautiful young woman, Aida. There is traditional Italian music, straight from the Naples of his youth, with its oom-pah-pah and rousing melodies.

Then a piano explodes and everything is changed, more complex and layered. This historical fact, that there were bombings during Caruso’s stay on Cuba, is the point of departure of an opera that touches on universal themes. While electronic sounds mix with the strings and clarinets of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, the narrative and on-stage imagery circle closer and closer to the question: what is choice, and what is destiny? Using elephants and other references to Verdi’s opera, as well as rituals from the ancient Lukumi religion in which mankind and nature are one, the opera unfolds like a hallucinatory dream. The German director Johannes Erath and his designers play with mixing memory and reality, beautifully keeping the imagery light and fun.

Everything is as it should be in the performance: the Spanish tenor Airam Hernandez grows over the course of the evening in his characterization of Caruso. The Aida, sensational Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique, is ready for the major houses. With this composition, Micha Hamel proves that asking existential questions can result in an intoxicating theatrical performance.


Trouw (Peter van der Lint), 4 March 2019:
Composer Micha Hamel lets loose in opera-esque Caruso a Cuba

Composer Micha Hamel starts off right away with a big bang. The overture of his opera Caruso a Cuba, which premiered Sunday night in the Opera Forward Festival, starts with a lively brew gushing from the orchestra pit with tremendous power. He must have written ‘agitata!’ at the top of the score, and it certainly did not fall on deaf ears. The musicians of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and conductor Otto Tausk sprint fearsomely out of the gate, perfectly setting the tone for an at-times hilarious evening in which once again opera can be gloriously histrionic and unabashedly Italian.

The overture music returns several times, sometimes distorted, as a connector in a score that has an ultra-high potpourri factor, especially in the first hour. Of course, the Verdi stew that Hamel puts on the hob fits perfectly with the subject of his opera, the tenore NapolitanoEnrico Caruso. The world-renowned singer is in Havana in 1920 to perform in Verdi’s Aida when a bomb explodes in the Teatro Nacional. This is historical fact, but what follows is pure fiction. The libretto, written by Hamel himself, is based on the novel Como un Mensajero Tuyo by the Cuban author Mayra Montero.

Verdian tune
In Montero’s novel, Caruso falls in love with a Cuban-Chinese woman named Aida. The story is embellished with Cuban and Chinese religious purification rites and predictions of fate. The two have a child, Enrichetta, who is the main character in the book but does not appear in the opera. The novel contains very little humour, and Caruso only sings once. Fortunately, Hamel ignores these two elements. After all, if you’re writing an opera with a Caruso, you want him to sing.

More or less every operatic cliché is masterfully satirised: early on in the opera the tenor is allowed to let loose with the short aria ‘La mia gola è sacra’ (‘My throat is sacred’), set to a typically Verdian tune in triple meter. A duet with Aida consists only of the word ‘Andiamo’ (‘Let’s go’), and ends on a pontifical high C. Once the focus turns to Naples, the mandolin comes out, and so on. But Hamel also splendidly recreates the special orchestral tinta(sound colour) that Verdi used in Aida, and he even has the voice of the real Caruso, the best-selling 78RPM artist in history, come crackling over the sound system now and then.

A giant version of one of these early shellac discs serves as the floor of the set in a clever and funny staging by Johannes Erath that ingeniously incorporates video images. Hamel’s score features a skipping record, nicely echoed in Erath’s direction.

Tenor Airam Hernández is a real Caruso, down to the voice. Jeanine De Bique brings wonderful empathy and a fabulous sound to the role of his lover Aida. The cast around them are fantastic, with no rough edges in the singing and staging. Otto Tausk and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra drive the whole wonderfully like musical engines.

Hamel’s tragic 2008 operetta Snow White was another hilarious and melodious pastiche. But fun and gravitas are in better balance in ‘Caruso a Cuba’, delivering a successful evening’s entertainment.


NRC Handelsblad (Joep Stapel), 4 March 2019:
Caruso a Cuba is an impassioned plea for the future of opera
Much of Micha Hamel’s new opera ‘Caruso a Cuba’ is great. The libretto is sometimes muddled, but the music and cast are compelling.

Among the many great things about Caruso a Cuba,the new opera by the poet and composer Micha Hamel, is the fact that inspired the story: while the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso was in Havana to sing the male lead in Verdi’s Aida, a bomb went off in the theatre, and Caruso was missing for a short time afterwards. In the opera, during the chaos after the explosion, he runs into a local beauty also named Aida. They flee and experience a variant of the doomed love in the Verdi opera. However, while Radamès and Aida die together, this Aida and Caruso are doomed to desert each other.

Caruso a Cuba is one of the new productions performed this week in the Dutch National Opera’s ‘Opera Forward’ Festival. Although Hamel is emphatically harking back to the age of Verdi and Puccini (the air is rife with paraphrases), the performance is an impassioned plea for the future of the genre.

A central feature of the set is an oversized gramophone record, a reference to Caruso’s status as the first great star of the recording era. In the virtuoso opening collage, we hear snippets of Verdi from the orchestra pit and a recording of the real Caruso singing the aria ‘Celeste Aida’. Hearing his voice, the local Aida swoons. Her godfather, the Lukumi priest Calazán, has already predicted their fate. The bomb’s explosion is an early climax, fragmentary and in slow motion, approached from the disorientation that follows.

Spiritual layer
Hamel has been a committed eclectic since his 2008 comic operetta Snow White. As Caruso a Cuba begins, it seems to be another flashy piece of montage, heavy on the stylistic changes and slapstick – Caruso’s heroic aria ‘Io canto nell’opera’ (‘I sing opera’) is very funny, and so is the written-in ‘broken record’ effect. Yet the tone is darker everywhere in this piece, there is a spiritual layer (Hamel has studied the Cuban Lukumi religion in depth) and the composition is more cohesive: the accessible Verdi music at the opening gradually becomes more difficult and moves towards a desolate, shrilly whistling close.

The libretto, written by Hamel himself (in Italian) and based on a novel by the Cuban writer Mayra Montero, is not a complete success. The Lukumi ritual, a key element in the piece, remains vague (although musically it is a solid, obsessive cacophony), and any intended commentary on Verdi’s orientalism does not come across. Important motives like Caruso’s paranoia (the mafia is blackmailing him) and his longing for Naples sound somewhat obligatory, and the confusion is dramaturgically not always effective.

That we are won over nevertheless is not only because of Hamel’s fresh and multi-faceted music and the chemistry of the whole, but also the two leads: they are simply stunning. One could imagine Airam Hernández quaking in his boots as he attempts to fill the shoes of the greatest tenor in music history, but he does so seemingly without effort, his voice warm, full of colour and with effervescent top notes. Soprano Jeanine De Bique from Trinidad (Aida) is a revelation. When she sang in La Clemenza di Tito last year in Amsterdam in her voice seemed on the small side, but in this more-intimate theatre setting she was breathtaking from beginning to end. The rest of the cast is also outstanding, as is the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Otto Tausk.

____________________________________________________________________ (website) (Alan Neilson), March 2019:

Opera Forward Festival 2019 Review: Caruso a Cuba:
Fantastical Story Is Supported By Brilliant Score & Strong Leads

In 1920, the world famous tenor Enrico Caruso was in Cuba to sing the part of Radamès in Verdi’s “Aida,” for which he was to receive the princely sum of $10,000 per performance.

During the rehearsals Caruso was in an anxious state, arising from his health problems, exacerbated by the Caribbean heat, and the threats he was receiving from the mafia who were trying to extort money from him, when a bomb exploded, causing Caruso to run off into the street dressed in full costume and make-up. This much is fact.

Taking Up the Story
Composer and poet, Micha Hamel, takes up the story in his new opera, “Caruso a Cuba,” itself based on Mayra Montero’s novel, “The Messenger”: Caruso, running wildly along the street, in a state of panic, meets a young woman, appropriately named Aida, who immediately falls in love with him and offers to help him escape from his enemies.
She is the goddaughter of a Lukumi priest, Calazan, who by interpreting the Ekuele (shells used for predicting a person’s fate) already knows of Caruso’s arrival and the fact that Aida will fall in love with him, as well as of his forthcoming death (Indeed, Caruso did actually die the following year in Naples in 1921). Aida turns to her godfather for help, who states that Caruso must first appease the Gods, for it is his presence in Cuba which has caused the disturbance in the cosmos.
He therefore undergoes a ritual, in which he is submerged into a lagoon, and experiences visions of his youth in Naples, and realizes how lonely he has become as an international celebrity. Nonetheless, the threats from the Mafia continue, and at one point Caruso and Aida are attacked, in which he is badly beaten and she is abducted.
Eventually, Caruso, now emotionally destroyed, is forced to flee the island for New York. Although Aida aids his escape, she knows that she will never see him again, and that he will never see his child, which she is carrying.

It is a multi-layered story that moves between the human and the spirt worlds, in which Aida and Caruso fight with the gods, in order to alter their fate. It is also a portrayal of man who is destroyed by the fame in which he is imprisoned. Of course, it is never clear that this is not a monstrous dream into which Caruso has projected his inner demons.

Eclectic Musical Mix
Listening to “Caruso a Cuba,” which was given its world premier at Amsterdam’s “Opera Forward Festival,” it was clear that this had been written by a composer who is confident in his own abilities, and with the necessary maturity, to engage with the subject in an honest and direct fashion; there was no sense that the music was composed to show off his skills, or that he was trying to instruct or educate his audience.

The overriding priority was, clearly, to create an opera of quality, in which the music was there to play its part in promoting the drama. Hamel adopted a flexible approach, prepared to use any musical style which suited his purpose, and displayed courage in fully embracing stylistic elements of Italian Romanticism and bel canto, although not slavishly so; he even goes so far as to insert recordings of Caruso singing, and to incorporate a couple of quotations from Verdi, including four bars from “Aida,” thereby offering himself up for comparison. Structurally, Hamel was happy to use any forms which he considered necessary, including musical interludes and set piece duets and arias. After all, how could an opera about Caruso not include arias?

His interesting and imaginative choices relating to instrumentation, and the decisions he made regarding the size of the musical force employed, created an engaging score which not only had a strong momentum, which maintained the work’s dramatic cohesion, but also successfully created and managed the changing atmosphere of the work.

In fact, over the course of the opera, which lasts approximately one hour 50 minutes, without an interval, the musical style changes significantly. At the start, it is more traditional, drawing on Italian Romanticism, but as Caruso’s emotional state deteriorates the music slides towards a more discordant, atonal style, and the instrumentation becomes a lot freer, making increasing use of electronic sounds. Individual parts, most notably in the case of Caruso himself, also start to move away from tonal music, although not uniformly so. In fact, Hamel, does not completely abandon tonal music nor set forms.

Overall, the score is an eclectic mix, in which the styles have been successfully brought together purely to meet the dramatic requirements of the drama.

Being a poet, Hamel also took the opportunity to write his own libretto in Italian, in which he also happens to be fluent. This was an important feature as it is the language of Caruso, and having the character sing in Italian added to the verisimilitude of work, as well as capturing the Italianate Romantic sound world.

A Colorful Atmosphere
The conductor, Otto Tausk, produced an atmospheric and colorful performance from the Netherlands Kamerorchest, which captured the many different moods and emotions explored in the drama; Caruso’s increasing anxieties were highlighted through emphasizing the music’s edgy contours, whilst the graceful lyricism and beauty during oases of tranquility, which he experienced during the love scenes, were lightly and delicately drawn.

Tausk was attentive to the score’s rhythmic qualities, its dynamic changes, and the balance between passages for solo instruments, (or small sections of the orchestra, of which there were numerous instances), and passages for the full orchestra. This allowed the drama to flow at shifting speeds, with varying degrees of emotional depth, and successfully maintained the dramatic tension.

The highpoint of the work is definitely the lagoon scene, in which Tausk allowed the combined forces of the orchestra to create a climactic sound, before softening to allow for Caruso’s reflections. It is a fast moving, yet atmospheric score, subject to frequent and sometimes violent changes, all of which Tausk and the Netherlands Kamerorchest dealt with commendably.

Being Caruso
In the central role of Caruso was the tenor, Airam Hernandez, who successfully managed to capture the essence of the character; dressed in a white suit with a Panama hat, possessing a similar physique, and adopting the big gestures of a man of the stage, he could not be mistaken for anyone other than the great tenor.

Moreover, Hernandez’s sweet lyrical and expansive bel canto singing, aided by the beauty of his warm middle register, added to the portrayal. The love duet with Aida, in particular, was sensitively and beautifully rendered. For large parts of the performance, however, we watched on as Caruso is subjected to increasing emotional pressure, in which Hernanadez successfully shifted from a lyrical to a more psychologically intense and emotionally disturbed presentation, his voice becoming stretched and discordant, in a compelling portrait of a man whose emotional framework is on the point of collapse.

The soprano, Jeanine De Bique, made an equally successful impression in the role of Aida, whom she presented as compassionate, loving, sympathetic, and at times feisty. It was, however, the beauty of De Bique’s singing that really caught the attention. The voice has an attractive, young, fresh quality, burnished with a silvery coating, which she used to deliver a sparkling performance.

Her singing was full of well-crafted phrase, subtly allied to the meaning of the text, which in the more lyrical passages allowed her to develop long arching lines of exquisite beauty. Moreover, the voice is agile and supple, and lost none of its radiance as it soared gracefully upwards.

Priests & Beyond

Bass Simon Shibambu certainly looked the part as the Lukumi priest, Calazan; bare-chested and clothed in traditional African dress, he stood with a commanding air, dispensing his wisdom and judgement. His voice was well-suited to the role; dark and resonant, authoritative and firm.

Shibambu, however, was careful not to create a distant, remote figure. Instead, he engaged passionately with his goddaughter’s predicament, in what was a convincing portrayal. The one slight criticism was that when standing towards the back of the stage he did not project the voice with sufficient power.

Aida’s mother was essayed by the American mezzo soprano Tichina Vaughn. She cut an impressive figure, especially in the second act scene, in which she appears as a saint, dressed in long white robes, with a silvery headdress.

Vocally, she gave a committed and expressive performance, her colorful pallet adding to the intensity of her characterization. However, she did occasionally lose a certain amount of control as she pushed into her upper register.

Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum created a strong portrait of Caruso’s manager Bruno Zirato although it was not exactly a flattering one: he was clearly self-seeking and fun-loving, using Caruso to further his own lifestyle. He was most noticeable in the opening scenes when he indulged himself along with the rest of Caruso’s followers in a surreal dance, which could have been taken from the theatre of the absurd. Vocally he gave a strong performance.

Michael Wilmering played a number of roles, including the impresario Adolfo Bracale and made a pleasing impression, putting in a strong acting and vocal performance.

Likewise, the mezzo-soprano, Eva Kroon, interpreted numerous small parts, and gave a good account of herself. Gabriel Rollinson was also multi-parted and produced a solid performance. With so many roles being undertaken by the same singers, more should have been done to differentiate their roles, which tended to morph into each other.

Vinyl 78
The director, Johannes Erath and his team comprising Katrin Connan, responsible for scenography, Noelle Blancpain, costume design, Bernd Purkrabek, lighting and Bibi Abel video footage, for the main part, did a fine job in bringing “Caruso a Cuba” to the stage.

The set consisted primarily of a large vinyl 78 record, which was used as a tilted surface, upon which most of the action took place. Videos projected onto a transparent curtain, front of stage, were used to good effect to create the atmospheric effects, and was particularly successful in the lagoon scene, in which Caruso is immersed into the water.

Blancpain’s costumes for the main characters were pleasing on the eye and helped define the character, but for the lesser roles everything was slightly confused. It was never exactly clear who they were, nor when their roles changed, which on occasions, had the knock-on effect of making the narrative difficult to follow. Blancpain missed an opportunity to help clarify the situation by differentiating the characters through distinctive costuming.

Erath’s direction compounded the problem, as there was insufficient clarity to their parts. However, his treatment and direction of the main characters, was excellent; Caruso’s nervous deterioration and his relationship with Aida were expertly developed, as were the roles of Calazan and Aida’s mother, and their relationships to the spirit world.

The opera starts with Caruso asleep on his record; does he really wake up or was it all a dream? Erath’s decision to create this ambivalence was maintained throughout, and allowed for somewhat surreal yet powerful visual ideas to be presented; at one point, for example, Caruso is surrounded by a cast dressed as Caruso. He can see only himself, even in other people, such are the distortions of fame!

To date, Hamel has composed one tragic operetta, ”Snow White,” which was widely acclaimed at the time, and a number of works which he defines as music theatre, but “Caruso a Cuba” is his first opera. It is an opera which has a lot to offer, both musically and dramatically, and deserves to be taken up by other companies, and opened up to a wider audience. Hopefully, Hamel will use its success as a platform for the creation of further operas in the near future.

all dutch reviews translated by Anne Hodgekinson