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  • Ginastera’s Bomarzo in the United States and the Impotence of the Pan-American Dream
  • Carol A. Hess (bio)

Scene XI of Bomarzo, by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, finds the humpbacked Duke of Bomarzo alone on his wedding night. Having failed—not for the first time—to realize his manhood, he now thrills to an erotic dream in which the physical repulsiveness, effeminacy, and impotence that have plagued his existence temporarily vanish. To complement the Duke’s unfolding fantasy, Ginastera offers a ballet “en tempo [sic] aleatorio.” (See Ex. 1.) While dancers writhe in semidarkness, the chorus, stationed in the orchestra pit, sighs on indeterminate pitches, alternating with the percussion. Their only texted utterance is the word “love,” whispered, according to the composer’s instructions, “in all the languages of the world.” As the climax approaches, the singers roam the chromatic scale with increasing volume while the percussion intensifies and seminude dancers mimic Bomarzo’s frenzied fantasy.

This passage, which combines music, gesture, text, and erotic fantasy within circumscribed chance procedures, deftly sums up some of the paradoxes in Bomarzo. Much the way sexual fulfillment eludes the protagonist, Ginastera’s second opera has ultimately failed to satisfy. Yet Bomarzo seemed initially destined for success. At its world premiere in Washington on May 19, 1967, it was warmly applauded. Unlike many a twentieth-century opera, Bomarzo was also deemed commercially viable: during the Washington run, CBS “rushed [in] a recording crew” and issued a three-record set.1 Months later, however, Bomarzo was banned at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires by the military regime of Juan Carlos Onganía, in power since June 1966. The reason given was its explicitly sexual content. The banning only piqued curiosity about Bomarzo in the United States, and on the eve of the New York City Opera’s performance, in March 1968, interest was running high.2 Yet Bomarzo fell flat. Unlike their counterparts in Washington, New York’s critics tagged it as dramatically unpersuasive and musically fallow; in fact, the two critical contingents might as well have been discussing different works. Subsequent performances of Bomarzo, both in the United States and elsewhere, have been few and far between.3 [End Page 459]

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Example 1.

“Erotic Ballet,” scene XI from Bomarzo.

Clearly a work that inspires euphoria in one environment, indifference in another, and outright banning in a third defies any notion of “the music itself” or a reified “work concept.”4 Yet we might ask what, if anything, can explain the gulf between the two critical contingents in the United States. For while Latin American scholars have detailed the various intrigues behind Onganía’s ban and its effects in Argentina, Bomarzo’s trajectory in the United States has gone unexamined.5 In this essay, I explore U.S. reactions to the opera in terms of Pan-Americanism. This highly politicized movement, rooted in the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, sought to promote hemispheric solidarity against external threats, including fascism during World War II and communism during the Cold War. That goal has proved elusive, as the titles of several studies—which allude to “tangled destinies,” “bitter fruit,” and “the shark and the sardines”—suggest.6 Similarly elusive has been Pan-Americanism’s goal of cultural unity, which the United States promoted through government agencies, private foundations, and the free-market system. Like its geopolitical parent, cultural Pan-Americanism has often provoked resentment in Latin America, a reaction Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart famously—and persuasively—articulated in How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.7

Few would deny the blatantly hegemonic orientation of many of the United States’ Pan-Americanist projects nor overlook the power of “cultural dependence” in establishing empires.8 Yet some scholars also warn against the temptation to discuss Pan-Americanism and culture “under the umbrella of a conspiracy theory.”9 The Argentine historian Ricardo D. Salvatore, for example, argues that cultural interactions between Latin America and the “Informal Empire,” as he calls the United States, are sufficiently complex as to require another kind of [End Page 460] “reading.”10 Key for Salvatore is representation, that...


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pp. 459-476
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