"El Juez", the triumph of an immense Josep Carreras on his comeback to staged opera in Bilbao

It seemed like a pipe dream. Suddenly the wonderful news about a year ago. Then ticket sales, the first details, the poster, and that first, wonderful pic of the first rehearsal in the beautiful foyer of the Teatro Arriaga, perhaps the first tangible proof, with such happiness and enthusiastic expression on his face. The dream was being realized.
We experienced this last month with great trepidation, constantly following the evolution of musical and stage rehearsals, through pictures and short videos shared by the staff of Teatro Arriaga and the cast members active on social networks. And so the dream has become reality.
After a 8 year-stop, Josep Carreras made his triumphal comeback to the opera srafe with a new work composed specifically for the occasion, for the joy of those who attended and those who would have loved too.
Josep Carreras ovationed over 20 minutes with his collegues.
Foto: Ítaca (facebook)
The atmosphere outside the Arriaga, a theatre specially chosen by Carreras for the seriousness and rigor in work, was swollen with excitement and expectations. The square was crowded with people from all parts of the world, specifically from 18 countries. We could hear talking in Spanish, English, Italian, German, Catalan, Japanese ... a multitude of languages ​​at the service of a more universal idiom: music and the unbounded admiration for an artist who has marked many of the most beautiful and exciting pages of the history of opera, since the seventies of the last century.


The tension grew thicker while people were taking their seats, and even more while the orchestra was tuning, and with David Giménez' arrival . Everything was ready for the world premiere of El Juez (Los niños perdidos ). On Kolonovits Christian music and libretto by Angelika Messner translated into Spanish, the work focuses on a highly dramatic, current topic as the children kidnapped during the Franco regime, taken away from dissidents parents and re-educated in a Catholic environment. Just currently, this cases are being legally investigated again.
Those who came to the Arriaga exclusively for Josep Carreras' extraordinary comeback to opera must have soon realized that the cast was a real luxury, with a wide range of voices and interpreters absolutely suitable for their role.
Most of them are immediately introduced: in fact, the scene opens with the cameraman Paco, played by baritone Manel Esteve, with the journalist Paula, soprano Sabina Puértolas, and her two nuns, each with a completely different approach: Itziar de Unda expresses the joy of living with coloratura, while María José Suárez, cautious, prudently handles the situation showing off a full-bodied mezzo-soprano timbre.
With the entrance of his character, the songwriter Alberto, tenor José Luis Sola gives the first few sentences that show the extraordinarily melodic nature of the opera, with his Canción of pañuelo, which draws attention to the story of his missing brother, Fernando García. This will be a key song, the lever that set in motion the whole story: Paula gets deeply touched and falls in love with it, Federico Ribas is incredibly impressed, and it also awakes the consciences of the people, especially those who have been affected by  such tragedy. With the duet Su canción Sr. García me conmueve, which we had already listen to in part, Sola and Puértolas offer the first emotions with beautiful phrases, creating an almost dreamy atmosphere.
At that point the audience seem lost, and do not expect Josep Carreras to suddenly appear on the stafe. As soon as I saw him sitting there,  my heart stopped beating.

María José Suárez (María), Laia de la Fuente (the judge's daughter)
and Josep Carreras (Federico Ribas). El Juez, act I.
Photo: Teatro Arriaga
From the very first phrases, he reveals the turmoil of his character, judge Federico Ribas, after listening to the song by Alberto García on tv: his inner torment comes to surface, translated into music with a hypnotic, recurring motiv representing the voices of missing children, that sounds in his head without rest. We see him with his daughter, played by young girl Laia de la Fuente, and with María, played by María José Suárez as well.
Federico is fragile, hesitant, does not know whether to support the truth or give in to the threats of a ruthless president of an extreme right wing political organization, who obliges him to avoid the scandal by making him sign a declaration forbidding the opening of the archives.
Sistema cruel is the aria that reflects the contradiction between his desire for justice and the guilt that gnaws at him for hiding those actos innobles, becoming an accomplice. It is the first major exhibition of his vocal power and of his extraordinary domain of the dramatic range, that deserves and leads to the first enthusiastic ovation of the evening. Carreras appears as intense as ever, his voice sounds powerful, it completely fills the room, showing no sign of fatigue. His mastery and interpretative skills are intact, as well as his magnificent stage presence. And when the words "comeback to the opera" were on everyone's lips, he proves to be immense as always, as if he had never stood away from the opera stage.

Carlo Colombara and Josep Carreras.
Photo: Teatro Arriaga
Meanwhile, the Italian bass Carlo Colombara had presented his character to the audience, the wicked, cynical and ruthless Morales, the worst ever of the opera villains. In his aria, Los padres muertos, cual criminales, with such deep voice, he proves to be majestic and authoritarian, absolutely correct in rendering the tough and malignant mind of the spokesman of the more extreme part of Franco regime, in a perfect Spanish.

The second act leaves the scene to Rossini Choir, portraying a group people inflamed by protest and desire to dig deep to bring the truth to surface. A special mention to Milagros Martín, in the guise of an old lady denouncing the thefts committed by the abbess of the convent, she calls urraca negra, who had a weakness for a child, she raised like her own son: incidentally, that child was judge Ribas, the same who had signed so that the archives remained closed.
The singer-songwriter is bitterly upset, and decides to go to the convent on his own to find out the truth about his brother. Paula is afraid that something might happen to him. At this point, one of the best melodies, for sure one of the most successful, in which José Luis Sola as much as Sabina Puértolas really express their talent : Un alma, un aliento (A soul, a breath) is the duet that makes official the feeling between their characters, and grants to both vocal lines many notes in the high range, in which both prove to be extraordinary, showing remarkable agility and subtlety in the phrasing.
Then, Josep Carreras is back again, but his character is welcomed by the people with hostility: the judge does not know how to manage their anger, he just wants to understand, but people regard him as a traitor, an accomplice of the cruel system, which fights against the truth. For this reason, he is severely attacked by parents and siblings of children stolen from their families. Paula protects him, and recommends him to talk to Alberto Garcia, in order to find to a solution together.
Sabina Puértolas and Josep Carreras.
Photo: Teatro Arriaga
Carreras is good at expressing the anguish of the judge, a real master theatrically as well. His interaction with Sabina Puértolas is very nice, in a moment of great dramatic tension providing forays into the lowest range for both voices, with an exquisite ending in piano.

The third act brings to the stage what, IMHO, is psychologically the most complex and interesting character together with the judge, the abbess. Mezzo-soprano Ana Ibarra makes a brilliant interpretation according to the complexity of her role. First, we see her in a strong face-off with Morales, who is furious after discovering the identity of the brother of the songwriter: Federico Ribas .
The urraca negra is responsible for the kidnapping of children, and that is why her soul looks dark and corrupt. However, behind such despicable acts, she hides a deep desire to be a mother, and the awareness of having received more from children, especially from Federico, than by the Lord Himself and her "supposed" religious vocation. She manages to be very intense, in perfect harmony with the music that Kolonovits wrote for her, dramatic and introspective, which gets clearer only when she looks in her soul and the real reasons are revealed.
Colombara continues as well as before, with his harsh exchange with the abbess, and even more in devouring the soul of poor Alberto who, meanwhile, had entered the convent. Morales promises the dossier of Alberto's brother, but in return the songwriter has to retire to private life, taking shelter in the house of his parents. " Es por tí, hermano", these are the words Alberto says. Bravissimo Sola in the pianissimo fading.
In revealing more and more his evil nature, Morales is joined by his men: Alberto Nuñez, José Manuel Díaz, Mikel Zabala and Giorgi Meladze join Colombara to sing a musically extraordinary march, in which their character trust in the return of the golden days, "los tiempos dorados volverán".
Alberto Nuñez, Mikel Zabala, Carlo Colombara, Giorgi Meladze, José Manuel Díaz
Photo: Teatro Arriaga
The scene changes, and brings back Josep Carreras, seized by strange sensations while he stands out of the house of Alberto's parents, which he does not know they are his as well.
The voices of the missing children are back again, with the leitmotif recorded by Kantika Korala: they flood his mind, causing pain and discomfort.

Josep Carreras
Photo: Clasica y Tuits
It's time for the other great aria of the judge, Tras los ojos llora el alma, featured by an incredibly touching, introspective, nice melody. Carreras extraordinarily expresses the inner drama of his character, he's simply unique, perfectly combining his sincerity of intention to his typical phrasing style. The public can not hold back their excitement and rewards him with another great ovation and several bravos.
His meeting with Albert, even though the judge is driven by the best intentions, does not happen in the best way: the children's voices are becoming more insistent, repeating "mi corazón no puede más". Federico is emotionally exhausted and Alberto's attitude irritetes him even more. He would like to go away, but then they have a physical and verbal confrontation. Paula's arrival restores order not without difficulty. The musical phrase shared  by the two tenors, different in tonality and intensity, was so impressive. Federico realizes that the only way to find out the truth is to talk to the abbess, and leaves the stage.
José Luis Sola, Sabina Puértolas, Josep Carreras
Photo: Clásica y Tuits
Meanwhile, Paula asks Alberto to help her calm down the fury of the people, but, even though he would love to stay with her, the singer is forced to decline because of the deal with Morales: briefly, the motiv of Un alma, un aliento comes back, for one more moment of dream, before they say goodbye. José Luis Sola... brilliant!

The fourth act brings the abbess back on stage, caught in a moment of inner analysis, dealing with her past, repeatedly invoking the pity of the Virgin Mary: the interpretation of Ana Ibarra is very convincing and achieves very high levels, as well as in the next scene with Josep Carreras.
As previously announced, in fact, Federico arrives at the monastery where he was raised up, to have a talk with her and light up his past, finding out the truth: the abbess still considers him as her son, but Federico just aims at the truth, and blames her because they are both guilty: people regard them as the urraca negra and her favorite child. The climax is reached when the abbess gives him the silk scarf he had kept all those years, and the judge realized he was the child of the silk scarf, the same one of the song, and then Alberto's brother.

Josep Carreras and Ana Ibarra
Photo: Clásica y Tuits
The crescendo of the orchestra, together with such desperation that Josep Carreras infuses his character, certainly create one of the most  touching and dramatic moments. I can still hear the way Josep says the phrase " el niño del pañuelo soy yo" , with that passage of intensity from piano to forte, absolutely heartbreaking. Soon the pain evolves into anger he addresses he yells out against the abbess, due to the immense amount of lies she had always told him. The judge is outraged, but his fury does not impress the abbess, who still refuses to open the archives, as the papers not only belong to the Church, but they are all her life. Furthermore, the nuns arrive to announce the terrible news of the kidnapping of the judge's daughter by , as someone let believe, Alberto García . Federico runs to save her child, without first having accused the abbess, guilty of a one more "niña perdida", missing child.
Right in front of the house of the parents of Alberto, he finds Morales who resists and blackmails him once again. But now Federico's mind is clear, he knows he wants to be on the side of justice. The judge does not accept to be manipulated anymore, and takes Franco's infamous supporter by surprise by informing him that he knows the whole truth. Morales threatens him again, and forces him to choose between her daughter's life and his job. Paula arrives and looks for Alberto, but meets Federico instead, who informs her of the sea of lies on the echo notes of his emblematic aria of the first act, Sistema Cruel.
Among the crowd, Alberto fings his way with the child, unjustly regarded as a traitor: he denies the exchange between his brother's paper and the judge's daughter. At that very moment, the tragedy takes place: Morales shoots Alberto to death. The child takes refuge in the arms of her father who, in turn, reveals to Alberto he was his missing brother. The songwriter, once he recognizes the silk scarf, feels ready to leave this world, conscious of having found the child his mother talked about on her deathbed. The last moments together with Paula and Federico are extremely moving, not only for José Luis Sola's great interpretation, but for the amazing music as well. In facts, Kolonovits combines some of the most meaningful fragments, and when Sabina Puértolas joins the tenor during the reprise of of Un alma, un aliento, is very difficult to hold tears back.
Sabina Puértolas, José Luis Sola, Josep Carreras and Laia de la Fuente.
El juez: act IV
Photo: Clásica y Tuits
Alberto's death inevitably involves a dramatic turnaround in music: Carreras, once again, perfectly expresses the inconsolable grief of his character, who looses his brother in the very moment in which he meets him. Federico was surprised to see the abbess there: "No te cansas de hacer el mal? (Aren't you tired cause pain?) he asks her, but she actually recognizes her personal failure, so that she is going to open the archives, thus aiming to her redemption. At this point, Morales remaines the only villain: in front of the Paco's camera, Manel Esteve, he resumes the march of the third act, stressing the content, and then disappears.
Federico is destroyed, but Paula shows him the way of forgiveness as the only possible remedy. So the journalist, despite having just lost the man she was in love with, turns out to be a key character, the symbol of hope as the only chance of salvation. Anyway , the last reflection is up to the judge, who hopes for a better future  in which good and evil go hand in hand. Sabina Puértolas joins in the last sentence, for a shared, moving finale on the word "forgiveness".

The opera was incredibly successful, both on the premiere night and in the two following performances. The final result had exceeded all expectations, and this was a real surprise, a big satisfaction for everyone. It is well known that contemporary operas must constantly struggle against prejudice and skepticism of lovers of tradition. However, the Austrian composer Christian Kolonovits was able to give life to music classical in structure, even though it combines many different kind of styles, such as musical, pop and jazz. Probably, if I had written the last sentence, just as a quote from a press review, without attending the opera myself, I  would have been perplexed. However, I confess that I am amazed at how my ear not only easily approached the music, but even appreciated it so much. It's simple and complex at the same time: it is immediate to listen to, very flowing and never heavy, deeply melodic with recurring motifs, some of which are quite lovely, which makes things much easier. Anyway, it can also complex sometimes, conceptual, in line with a well-structured and engaging plot, and a detailed characterization of the roles, some of them of considerable psychological depth.
Maestro David Giménez was very good with the Orchestra BIOS, the score was really complicated, but was resolved beautifully. Congratulations to Maestro Husan Park, for her valuable contribution.

An interesting opera to listen to and to watch as well: the stage director Emilio Sagi, and stage designer Daniel Bianco have made a relly good job, with a simple, decorous set-up: some choices are really impacting, but I don't want to spoil anything if you still have to attend a performance.

Ovations were generous and deserved, with over twenty minutes of applause and bravos in the premiere night.  All the cast have been praised, they have had a correct approach to the situation, coping with the difficulties that an opera never performed before involves, in connection with the great comeback to opera of a living legend.
Photo: kindly offered to Blog Josep Carreras by B.G.
Particularly appreciated were Carlo Colombara, Ana Ibarra and the Navarre couple, José Luis Sola and Sabina Puértolas.
Right when Josep Carreras appeared during the curtain call, the Teatro Arriaga went literally up in flames. Everybody joined in an emotive stanging ovation to reward an artist who, after eight years, accepted the challenge of a new opera, and gave his 110 per cent, performing with great dignity, depth and an extraordinary presence on stage. I think nobody could really expect something like that. Outstanding!

Photo: kindly offered to Blog Josep Carreras by B.G.
For sure, Kolonovits took well into account of his current vocal characteristics, and built a role "custom made", carefully focused on the center range. He avoided that his voice forced too much, but equipped it with a lot of precious moments that Carreras has been able to accomplish with his usual incredible mastery, with finesse and beautiful style. Someone wrote that the tenor high range was fully compensated by his young colleague, José Luis Sola. It is true, and he was really good. However, our tenor has demonstrated to be still able to stand out on the operatic stage, with many of his qualities still intact, as the impeccable diction, the refined phrasing, and especially the sensitivity of the interpretation, his sincere and genuine intention that has always made him unique and special. In addition, his voice filled every corner of the theatre, it sounded huge and great, both in dramatic and lyrics shades. These are just some of the reasons why, if only the curtain had not come down, the ovation for him would have continued much longer. In that circumstance, he confirmed the humility that had conquered his younger colleagues during the rehearsals: he did not want to stand, alone, out of the team, and he wouldn't if only Emilio Sagi hadn't dragged him forward to receive the deserved homage of his audience. He had won his challenge, brilliantly. He was excited and happy, and all of us with him.
Photo: Ítaca (facebook)
Personally, I do not think I can properly describe the emotion I felt during the performances, I can not fully express what meant for me to be able to applaud him on this occasion: actually,I never thought I could have ever had the opportunity to experience an opera with my tenor, live, with no screens in the middle, with no DVDs. I thought it was too late for me, that I had missed any opportunity because of my young age. But I can proudly say that I have realized my impossible dream: now I know what it's like to attend an opera with Josep Carreras, see him triumphing, and feel touched with him. Now I know that too.

In this video you can see him, still visibly excited, showing his gratitude to the Arriaga Theatre and its audience for this world premiere that brought him back into the opera stage. After three summer performances in Erl, Austrian Tyrol, on 9, 12 and 15 August, we really hope that this opera will reach many other destinations.


  1. Thank you very much for this detailed review! It is a real compensation for not having been able to attend those outstanding performances in Bilbao! Now I am looking forward to the performances in Erl, Tyrol, in August this year!


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