BRIEF PROGRAMME NOTE
The story of the Venezuelan historical figure Simón Bolívar, who liberated five South American countries from Spanish colonial rule and unsuccessfully pursued their political unification under one flag. Against the tumultuous forces of the period’s struggles, Bolívar emerges as a passionate idealist, brilliantly successful as a liberator (‘El Libertador’), but unable to achieve his dream of South American unity. The formation of those ideals, his personal charisma and passions and his inability to compromise are all part of a historic story which resonates with renewed meaning in today’s world
Each generation needs its heroes: those people who can conceive of a new world and who also have the charisma, commitment and skill to bring it to reality. Thus Bolivar. Though in his own eyes he was not successful (“those who serve a revolution only plough the sea”), for us he is a source of insight and understanding of the difficulties of achieving the goals he aspired to. But no struggle of this nature is in vain. And we find renewal of his spirit in a few rare and wonderful people of our own time.
This opera tells the story of this important Venezuelan hero, who liberated five South American countries from Spanish colonial rule and pursued unsuccessfully his further ideal of their political unification under one flag. Against the tumultuous forces of the period’s struggles, Bolivar emerges as a passionate idealist - brilliantly successful as a liberator ('El Libertador'), but who was unable to achieve his dream of South American unity. The formation of those ideals, his personal charisma and passions, and his inability to compromise, are all part of a historic story which resonates with renewed meaning in today’s world.
The libretto is based on historical events and writings of Simon Bolivar.
© Thea Musgrave1993
Scene i - The Lesson:
The local colour of the scene is set as Hipólita (the young orphaned Bolívar’s much loved black nanny) enters singing "Quirimare", a folk song from the Caribbean coast. She is with her young son Palacios, later to become Bolívar’s lifelong valet.
Meanwhile Rodríguez, tutor to the young Simón, explains the concept of the rights of man as implemented in the contemporary French Revolution.
Royalist police arrive for Rodríguez; he is accused of subversive activities, and is roughed up and brutally led away. Bolívar thus experiences at first hand the cruelty of those in control.
Scene ii - The Decision:
Further sounds of battle bring Bolívar back to the "reality" of the present. The struggle has been long and violent with much loss of life. The dream of liberation seems without hope. Soldiers are threatening to lay down their arms and return home. Páez enters with his llaneros and is about to shoot one such cowardly solider. Bolívar prevents Páez from this act of violence, but insists that the fight for freedom must never be abandoned. He proposes a desperate solution: to cross the treacherous high cordillera thus eluding the Spanish forces and unite with General Santander and the patriots in neighbouring New Granada. Together the two armies will liberate Bogotá and later Caracas.
Bolívar’s conviction and charisma eventually convinces Páez, as well as Sucre and O’Leary, to respond to his leadership. They all declare themselves ready to follow him. Bolívar instructs Páez to remain behind as rearguard, but reminds him they will soon join together again when Caracas is liberated.
Scene iii - The meeting
The excitement of the previous scene suddenly gives way to the cold reality of the dangerous high cordillera. Santander, with some of his men, awaits the arrival of Bolívar and the Venezuelan army. Meanwhile Santander contemplates Simón Bolívar: What kind of man is this that would dare to bring an army across the impenetrable cordillera? Was it a mistake to trust him?
They are about to give up all hope when at long last Bolívar and his patriots arrive. The journey has been a disaster. Their condition is catastrophic. All begin to question the chances of their success. Suddenly following the lead of a Granadan soldier, who offers his ration of bread, the others all move towards the exhausted Venezuelans in an impassioned moment of brotherhood. Extremely moved, Bolívar recalls the tricolour that inspired the brotherhood of man. He fashions a new flag for a new united republic, Gran Colombia. Even the proud Santander recognizes Bolívar’s charisma.
Scene iv - The Liberator
The Spanish have indeed been taken by surprise and are routed at the battle of Boyacá. All now recognize and acclaim Bolívar as their liberator. A carousal begins as Bolívar toasts the victory. Tonight they celebrate, tomorrow the road to Bogotá lies open.
During the festivities (which include a traditional "Galeron" and a "Corrido") Bolívar tells Santander of his dream: not only to liberate the whole Spanish world but also to unify all countries under a single federal government. He overrides Santander’s serious questions and doubts, adding that whenever he, Bolívar is absent on military campaigns, Santander shall remain in Bogotá and take political control. Santander, the man of laws, is won over by the argument that he is really needed at home, while Bolívar the man of action, must continue the fight. With excitement Santander realizes the enormous potential of this promise, while Bolívar rejoices that with Santander his dreams of unity and political organisation begin to have some reality.
Scene v - The Vice President
Several years have passed and Santander is Vice President of the new Republic of Gran Colombia. He is swamped with the interminable struggle to keep the new nation afloat.
A dispatch from Bolívar (now in Quito) requests Santander’s support to get money from Congress to continue the sweep of liberation into Perú. However the unification of the liberated countries has created many serious problems both financial and political as he, Santander has predicted. Santander therefore withholds permission for Bolívar to leave Perú and writes that Bolívar must return to the capital immediately.
Scene vi - The Ball
A ball is being given to celebrate the liberation of Quito, and its liberator Bolívar. The dances include a "Trinitaria" a favourite contredanse of Bolívar that was discovered amongst his papers after his death; "La Vencedora" actually composed for Bolívar’s triumphal entry into Bogotá; an original Pavan taken from the composer’s "Mary, Queen of Scots"; and later in the scene there is the "Tirana" a Spanish 18th century dance. All these dances are set against ongoing dramatic action. Thus when the dispatch from Santander denying permission to leave for Perú arrives, Bolívar’s anger interrupts the Trinitaria. Bolívar firmly believes that Perú is the last stronghold of the Spanish and they must be decisively thrown out of Perú, and indeed all South America, or the newly liberated countries will always be under threat of attack.
During this interchange Manuela (beautiful, spirited and unconventional) arrives and immediately attracts Bolívar’s attention. This scene shows the beginning of their passionate relationship...a scandal since she is already married.
A battle is in progress. O’Leary arrives bringing to Sucre a dispatch from Bolívar emphasising that this is the crucial battle and despite all political difficulties, he is sending reinforcements.
Scene vii - Victory
Bolívar, accompanied by Manuela, has arrived in Lima, Perú. He is anxiously awaiting news of the outcome of the battle at Ayacucho. He is also more and more concerned by the growing rivalry between Santander and Páez. For different reasons both have requested his immediate return North. Bolívar, always impatient with the minutiae of domestic politics, considers his presence in Perú more important than a journey North to appease political differences.
Manuela immediately understands the potential danger of Bolívar’s decision. She pleads with him to return North to "put his house in order".
O’Leary arrives with the news of General Sucre’s victory at the battle of Ayacucho in Upper Perú. Now all of Spanish America is free from Spanish imperialism. Bolívar is exultant - this victory is the culmination of his great dream of liberation.
Bolívar dictates a letter for O’Leary to take to Santander explaining the impossibility of his return North at this important historical juncture and to placate Páez. He, Bolívar, must remain in Perú and consolidate this great victory. Bolívar bids Manuela a passionate farewell and departs to rejoin his army.
The scene opens out and we see Bolívar welcomed and acclaimed by Sucre and the army of liberation, while the people greet him with the ancient "Hymn to the Sun" sung in Quechuan. During this triumphal scene upstage, we witness on either side of the downstage area, Santander’s furious reaction to the letter O’Leary has brought, and Manuela’s premonition of the danger that threatens Bolívar.
Scene viii - The Homecoming
Two years later. The people sing of their misery. Amongst them are recognisable veterans from the Army of Liberation, their uniforms in rags, some are mutilated, many with crutches. All are destitute.
Bolívar has at long last returned home to Caracas. He enters unrecognised. He is appalled at the poverty and the devastation. When questioned, the people reply that they have been abandoned by their liberator, who has never returned to protect them. They are ruled by a tyrant (Páez) at home and by an unresponsive Congress in distant Bogotá. The dream of unity that subjugates them to Gran Colombia has turned out to be nothing more than a word, and words do not rebuild their homes or feed them. On this despairing note they leave.
Bolívar goes to Páez and challenges him about the disastrous conditions in Venezuela. He orders Páez to go to Bogotá to answer charges about this and other matters. Páez defiantly refuses. He declares that he would rather secede from the union and that his llaneros stand behind him. He refuses to listen to Bolívar’s pleas for the countries to remain united. His loyalty is to Bolívar alone - to no one else. Unity with a hostile and distant congress means nothing to him.
Alone, Bolívar experiences an agonising moment of confusion and doubt. He feels trapped in a labyrinth, for whatever decision he makes will have disastrous consequences. If he tries to force Páez to accompany him to Bogotá, there is the serious threat of a civil war, and if he does not, the news of Páez’ insubordination will certainly have very serious consequences.
Bolívar stumbles and falls unconscious...the first signs of his debilitating illness.
Scene ix - The Departure
Manuela has received a letter from Bolívar pleading for her to come to him. Though she knows Bolívar is dying, she decides to leave her husband for good and rejoin Bolívar even for the short time that is left. She makes this tragic decision knowing that when Bolívar is gone she will be quite alone and without protection.
Scene x - The Confrontation
Bolívar on his return to Bogotá is greeted cordially by Santander. Then he learns that Bolívar has not only failed to bring Páez back with him to face charges before the Colombian Congress, but also in a last ditch attempt to preserve the unity of Gran Colombia, Bolívar has announced his support of Páez. Santander is outraged; he declares he will challenge Bolívar publicly. Bolívar defends his action and furiously accuses Santander of personal ambition.
Scene xi - The Conspiracy
Offstage we hear the sereno (the nightwatchman) calling out the hour and that all is well. Bolívar, now very ill, is tended by Manuela.
Suddenly there is tumult inside the house. There is an assassination attempt on Bolívar. He is saved by Manuela, who with Palacios, spirits him out of the window and remains behind to be severely beaten by the conspirators.
Scene xii - The Labyrinth
Bolívar is helped into hiding by Palacios while upstage we see the conspirators seeking "the tyrant Bolívar".
A big ensemble scene follows; it depicts Bolívar in a fevered delirium. He imagines himself confronted by his accusers: both Santander and Páez, and even Rodríguez, declare him to be a traitor to his country and condemn him to exile. However Sucre exhorts the people to stand together with him and defend Bolívar’s great dream. As the people begin to respond to this plea, Páez and Santander recognise this as a threat to their authority. For one brief moment they make common cause. Urged on by Santander, Páez shouts out to his llaneros and they brutally assassinate Sucre.
Bolívar’s loud cry of despair brings Palacios to his side, who shakes him back to "reality" and leads him to a place of safety. In the distance we hear the conspirators still calling out for "the tyrant Bolívar".
Scene xiii - The exile
Bolívar in emotional, broken phrases, recognises the failure of his dreams. He is alone, in poverty and in exile. He is separated from Manuela and his one true friend, Sucre, has been assassinated.
Then with his last strength, Bolívar dictates a letter to his people. With nobility and dignity he pleads that they should never forget the vision of freedom from tyranny and they should always be ready to fight for the ideals of unity and justice that were the foundation of the War of Liberation. The words of this famous letter are spoken and they not only softly underlie the succeeding scene, thus linking the action to the final coda, these words are also echoed by a contemporary Rodríguez teaching some children about the great vision of their liberator.
Scene xiv - The Legacy
O’Leary visits Manuela who lives in poverty in Perú. Her tells her that now at long last, twelve years later, the body of Bolívar is being returned to Caracas and there will be a big funeral ceremony to honour him. Against the cries of a distant imaginary crowd who now acclaim their liberator, O’Leary and Manuela recall Bolívar’s dreams those that were realised and those that were never fulfilled.
It is almost one hundred years later and a crowd gathers round a big statue of Bolívar in the square of a Latin American capital. The presence of armed police and informers show that the country is ruled by a military dictatorship. A contemporary Rodríguez enters and starts to distribute pamphlets. People gather round him excitedly but nervously and a contemporary young Bolívar watches. Suddenly police arrive, shots are fired and Rodríguez is arrested. At that moment the Spirit of Bolívar appears and walks slowly through the crowd. Despite their terror, his words echo through their collective memory. They defiantly stand their ground, emboldened by Bolívar’s spiritual presence.