Le malentendu

The thoroughly talented Fabián Panisello, known primarily as a composer and conductor, has time and again demonstrated his expertise in vocal music, notably through works such as Libro del frío (2011), written in cooperation with poet Antonio Gamoneda; Gothic Songs (2012), a commission of the Alte Oper in Frankfurt; and L’officina della resurrezione (2013), a monodrama on the conflict between modern and archaic man, based on an original text by Erri de Luca and the Book of Ezekiel. All these works have been very favourably received by audiences as well as Spanish and international critics.

In Le malentendu, the Spanish–Argentine composer combines a verbal text with electroacoustic music in an ambitious, truly innovative way.

The cast of the opera Le malentendu (The Misunderstanding) includes four vocal parts (two sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, and a baritone), an actor, electronics, and a chamber orchestra. The libretto, written by Juan Lucas, is an abridged adaptation of Albert Camus’s French work under the same title.

It tells the story of a man who after a long sojourn abroad, returns incognito to his family home, unaware of the fact that his widowed mother and sister offer rooms to travellers which they then murder. They both act with routine, seeing those crimes as a way of life: “habit begins with the second crime. Just as something else ends with the first.” The women fail to recognise him and so, inevitably, he shares the fate of other travellers and dies at their hands.

Panisello’s opera unfolds on several levels. Apart from the theatrical and operatic drama, he sets the verbal layer of the text in an innovative way: its grammar, syntax, prosody, and extraverbal aspect of the words, deriving elements of instrumental technique and music form from the nature of the language. Language is thus treated as a source of material not only in terms of semantics, syntax, and prosody, but also in an abstract and symbolic way, which translates into the composition’s structure and texture. The electroacoustic processing of sound, too, thoroughly deciphers and transforms the work’s text. The objective is to create a parallel, integrated but independent discourse. The electroacoustic layer was developed in cooperation with sound engineer Alexis Baskind of the Centre National de Création Musicale (CIRM) in Nice and includes both a layer recorded on tape and custom-built electronic instruments, controlled from the keyboard in real time. The performance of the opera thus requires the participation of a sound engineer and technician. Le malentendu opens with a Prelude, which presents the rhythmic and melodic patterns that characterise each of the five characters; they recur consistently throughout the opera. The Prelude ends with an electronic “miniopera,” which in three minutes presents a condensed version of the plot that is then fully developed over a half-hour.

From that moment on, the opera’s structure follows the plot, alternating scenes, simultaneous scenes, and interludes. Scenes present the successive situations of the drama, while interludes are symbolic representations of the characters. Even in the interludes, however, language plays an essential role, in that characters, gestures, and related musical motifs are derived directly from words and utterances, determined by the number of syllables, emphasis, rhythm, flexion, and so forth.

In terms of compositional technique, Le malentendu follows a trend explored by Panisello since 2004, based on “polysystematic matrixes,” as the composer terms them. Each such matrix maps the intersections of mutually related systems so as to generate a potential net of harmonies, melodies, scales, and modulation patterns unique to each work.

In its treatment of time, Le malentendu is a summary of Panisello’s earlier experiences with various elements of time organisation, such as “pulsation,” “micropulsation,” the use of “patterns” (understood as horizontal polymetric structures resulting from juxtaposing changing fast-pulsating metres), hockets, and other structures ranging from organic repetition to “rhythm” (understood as a free, arbitrary selection of basic time units).

Undoubtedly, it is a work characteristic of Panisello’s style. It reflects the composer’s vast experience and knowledge of modern musical repertoire. At the same time, it is an original contribution to his meticulous output.

Le malentendu was premiered at the Experimental Centre of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on 7 April 2016. Apart from a concert performance at this year’s Warsaw Autumn, the opera will soon be staged at the Neue Oper in Vienna and the Teatro Real and Teatros del Canal in Madrid.

The opera’s composition was supported in 2015 by the BBVA Foundation Grants to Researchers, Innovators and Cultural Creators. As all earlier works by Panisello, it is published by C. F. Peters in Frankfurt.

Beatriz Amorós Sánchez

The work’s performance is authorised by the C. F. Peters publishing house.



Scene 1

Mother and her daughter Martha talk about a guest that is about to stay at their boarding house. It is Jan, who is speaking to his wife Maria (both conversations happen simultaneously and neither couple pays attention to the other).

Jan is a rich young man in a happy relationship with Maria. He decides to renew contact with his mother and sister, with whom he has not spoken for many years, ever since he left his family village. He intends to stay in their boarding house and reveal his identity in due time. Maria tries in vain to dissuade Jan, wondering why he would simply not announce his visit—one word would suffice. This is the problem for Jan: he cannot find the right words. Maria reluctantly agrees to leave him in the boarding house.

Mother and Martha have already murdered several boarding house guests for money. Martha seeks to save enough money to leave the village, where she sees no perspectives for herself. She dreams of love and living in a beautiful, sunny place by the sea.


Scene 2

In the boarding house’s reception, Jan speaks to his sister Martha. He checks in under a false surname. He says he is just coming back from Africa. Martha expresses nostalgia for the world at large, so different from her grim village. Jan wonders why the Old Man appears from time to time, saying nothing. For Martha, it is nothing strange: the Old Man always does what he should.


Scene 3

Mother joins the conversation. Jan circuitously suggests his identity: he says he knows the surroundings, asks Mother about her late husband, and alludes to her son (i.e., to himself). Martha is reluctant to talk about personal matters with a stranger.


Scene 4

In a recitative and aria, Mother sings about her old age: she feels too tired to commit another murder.


Scene 5

In his room, Jan thinks about Maria. Martha brings him a towel and a basin and confesses she and Mother were unsure whether to give him a room; they were keen to shut the boarding house down. She asks Jan where he comes from, and tells about her desire to break free from her mundane reality. When Jan remarks that for the first time, Martha speaks to him with no animosity, in a “human” way, she rebukes: “The human side of me is not my better part. The only thing I share with the rest of he human race is my determination to get what I want. To shatter and destroy absolutely anything that stands in my way.” Upon leaving, she says she had nearly asked Jan to go away, but when he mentioned “humanity,” she wished he stayed.


Scene 6

Jan rings a bell and the Old Man appears, silent as always. Jan explains he just wanted to check if someone would show up at the sound of the bell. Soon after, Martha brings Jan tea. Jan is surprised because he never asked for it. Martha explains that the Old Man, who can hardly hear, must have misunderstood. Jan drinks the tea and considers with what words he should reveal the goal of his visit. Or perhaps it is better to leave everything as it is and leave the place with no explanation?


Scene 7

Mother enters the room and asks whether Jan has drunk the tea brought erroneously by Martha. Jan announces his sudden decision: he wants to leave immediately. Yet his words reveal a suppressed desire to reveal the truth about himself. Then the sleeping pill added to the tea begins to work. Jan falls to the ground. Before he falls asleep, he realises Maria was right: it was enough to just say “It’s me.”


Scene 8

Mother and Martha enter the room to pick the sleeping Jan and throw him into the river, as they did with their previous victims. Jan’s passport falls on the floor and is picked by the Old Man. In Jan’s suitcase, Martha finds a thick roll of banknotes. Mother confesses she tried to prevent Jan from drinking the tea but it was too late. On the other hand, Martha had stopped hesitating when Jan told her about distant, sunny countries.


Scene 9

After the crime, Mother feels only tiredness. Martha feels she again is a beautiful young girl.


Scene 10

The Old Man gives Mother and Martha Jan’s passport. Silence falls. Mother wishes to drown and thus join her son: “When a mother fails to know her son, her function in this life has come to an end.” Martha answers that Mother’s life has another purpose: the happiness of her daughter. After all, she taught her not to care for anything.


Scene 11

Martha feels rejected by her Mother who left her for her son, alone amidst her crimes.


Scene 12

Maria comes to the boarding house and asks about her husband, who was due to return but didn’t. Martha says Jan has already left. When Maria, concerned, adds Jan was Martha’s brother, Martha coldly confesses the crime, explaining the motives and circumstances. Martha also wants to die, but alone: she does not wish to join her mother and brother who likely are united at the bottom of the river.


Scene 13

Maria, despaired, begs help from God. The Old Man appears and speaks for the first time, asking if Maria had called him. Asked for help, he answers with a brief “no.”