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Bowles’s Yerma has American Prairie Harmonies Tempered to Surreal


The world of American music in the 20th century is a world of lesser-knowns. Paul Bowles is one of the lesser-known lesser-knowns. He left the country in his relative youth and spent most of his life in Morocco. Despite formal training as a musician — including studying composition with Aaron Copland — he’s best known today as a writer. He made the first English translation of Sartre’s Huis Clos, giving it the more familiar title of No Exit. The Sheltering Sky, Bowles’s novel about Americans adrift in the North African desert, was adapted into a film by Bertolucci.

And yet, there’s still his music. Yerma is his operatic adaption of a play by Lorca. It was presented at BU Theatre as part of their annual Fringe Festival on October 16. It centers on a young married couple in rural Spain. Yerma and Juan have been married for several years. Yerma is restless. They have no children. Besides her own desires, she must contend with gossipy neighbors who want to know where the problem lies. Juan is a fine farmer, but does less well as a husband. He wants his wife to stay inside all day so the neighbors won’t talk about them. Yerma tries reasoning with her husband, contemplates an affair or divorce, tries prayer and folk remedies. None of these things work. Ultimately, she becomes overwhelmed by the life she’s trapped in. One night when Juan is drunk, she strangles him to death.

The libretto is taken directly from Lorca’s play, in a translation by Bowles. It is more a musical play (Bowles called it a zarzuela) than an opera. Instrumentation is a band that included piano/harpsichord, electronic keyboard, trumpet, and percussion. Music comes in between dialogue, with words that are structured much like song lyrics. The music reflects the WPA scene in which he received his musical training. It’s got plenty of those clear, open American prairie harmonies. But they’re tempered with rhythmic touches and a foreign folk feeling that draw them into a more surreal sphere. It’s not hard to hear Bowles as a link between Copland and Peter Garland, another lesser-known who’s done his time on the fringes.

As staged by David Gately, the emphasis was placed on Bowles’s WPA roots. The work was given a firmly naturalistic reading. Lines were read with a big, melodramatic feel. Metaphors were spoken as if they were literal, a take that pushed out the chaos and weirdness that was so often in the material.

The performers were all students. Their singing was strong for their experience, but their acting was less assured. As far as neglected works go, Yerma well deserves the airing, but one would hope to see it in a more sympathetic setting.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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