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Summary of 'La ciudad de las mentiras'

A polyphony of characters, places and situations form the structure of "La ciudad de las mentiras" (City of Lies), a world premiere at the Teatro Real by Spanish composer Elena Mendoza. The opera is based on four stories by Juan Carlos Onetti. It describes a city in miniature where four women create parallel universes through dreams and stories to escape their own realities.  A world where lies are the basis of social relationships.

Sinopsis de 'La ciudad de las mentiras'
Sinopsis de 'La ciudad de las mentiras'

«Nothing was happening in Santa María. It was autumn. Barely the shining sweetness of a dying, sporadic sun, slowly going out. For the full range of Santa María residents who looked heavenwards and earthwards before accepting the proper absurdity of work. (…)

Nothing occurred in Santa María that autumn until the arrival of the time – why call it wretched or fatal or established and unavoidable – until the arrival of the happy time of the lie». 

The beginning of The Stolen Bride takes us to the imaginary town of Santa María, where Juan Carlos Onetti’s literary works take place. It also leads us to the major theme of this opera: lies, not in a moral sense but as a life strategy. In City of Lies, four of the author’s tales are linked across fifteen different scenes with a polyphony of characters, places and situations, inviting the audience to figure out, bit by bit, the leitmotiv of each of the stories, with their interplay of parallelism, coincidence and misunderstanding. 
A Dream Come True is the short story framing the action. An unnamed woman visits ruined theatre producer Langman and asks him to stage a play of a dream she has had. She will be the main character and the play is to be put on privately without an audience. While she was having her dream, she felt happy. This is the reason why she wishes to see it all over again. Langman swings from mockery to incredulity, while feeling that something is not quite right. After hiring all the residents of Santa María to behis actors, Langman will stage the dream as the grand finale to the performance which, as in Onetti’s story, is left open to interpretation.

In The Stolen Bride, Dr. Díaz Grey, one of Santa María’s most eminent residents, retrospectively declares his love to a young woman called Moncha Insaurralde at her open graveside. Moncha, who had been sent to Europe by her family to separate her from her young lover Marcos Bergner, returns to Santa María intending to marry him. But in the meantime, Marcos has died, along with everybody else she had left behind. Moncha decides to ignore these circumstances and makes herself a sumptuous wedding dress which she then parades around Santa María and which she wears each moonlit night to celebrate her wedding to an imaginary Marcos. The gradual deterioration of the dress will mark the girl’s decline until the inexorable end.

Marriage is also a central theme in Hell Most Feared: Gracia, a theatre actress, and Risso, a reporter at Santa María’s local radio station, swear to be eternally faithful when they marry: «Anything, absolutely anything can happen to us, and we will always be happy and in love». However, when Gracia tells Risso about an erotic encounter with a member of the audience, to which she herself attaches little importance, Risso promptly turns her out of the house. Bitterly disappointed, Gracia leaves Santa María and from then on, Risso receives, with crushing regularity, photographs she takes of herself in obscene poses, each with a different man. When the photographs are then sent to other inhabitants of Santa María, Risso loses his mind. 

The fourth woman to perturb the monotony and hopelessness of life in Santa María is Carmen Méndez, who arrives in the city harbour carrying a suitcase, as in Onetti’s The Album. Young Jorge Malabia feels a special attraction for her. They strike up a singular erotic relationship based on the fantasy travel stories she tells him night after night, seducing him with what he believes to be a world of fiction. One day, Carmen leaves Santa María with another man, leaving her suitcase behind at the hotel. With the help of his friend Tito, the bartender, Jorge manages to get hold of it. Inside he finds a photo album which reveals that all the stories Carmen told him were actually true, implying the worst kind of betrayal, because it breaks the spell. As Onetti puts it, «There are various ways of lying. But the most repugnant of all is to tell the truth, the whole truth, hiding the soul of the facts».

Elena Mendoza