at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

Flamenco guitarist Tomas de Utrera is a man who believes passionately in the power of his art. He has said, quoting Luis Antonio Vega, “Flamenco is the means through which man reaches God without the intervention of saints or angels.” He has likened hearing great flamenco music to a perfect sexual experience, and believes an understanding of flamenco “illuminates the beauty, grandeur, and profundity of life.” Born of a Gypsy mother and a musician father in the southern Spanish town of Utrera (thus the name), he hails from the cradle of flamenco. Not the flamenco of touristy nightclubs and stiff academic study, he says, but the flamenco of the Spanish and Andalusian soul.

This is the third time he’s produced La Petenera (A Spanish Sephardic Tale), which sets the poetry of 20th-century writer Federico Garcia Lorca to flamenco music. The Lorca poem from which the musical work takes its name, Utrera explains, is based on a Spanish tale of a beautiful Sephardic woman who refused to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Utrera’s introduction makes the story sound extremely promising: La Petenera was from a well-to-do philanthropic Jewish family who had lived in Spain for over 800 years. Despite the pressures of the Inquisition, she refused to leave. Outwardly she converted to Christianity to protect herself, but inwardly she held fast to her Jewish convictions.

Being beautiful and wealthy, La Petenera was the object of many a man’s passion. But she never married or took lovers, because doing so would have betrayed her beliefs. Those who couldn’t have her were often spiritually destroyed. Ultimately, La Petenera was murdered by a jealous suitor who decided that if he couldn’t have her no man could. Lorca’s poem is a surrealistic homage to this archetype of Andalusian women: spiritually complete, strong-willed, intelligent, and beautiful.

It seems so promising, and then La Petenera fails to deliver. For starters, the translation of Lorca’s poem (by performer Barbara Bowen and Utrera) seems incomplete, covering only the first part of La Petenera’s story, when all the Sephardic and Muslim men are forced to leave, convert, or die. While Utrera’s music is emotionally rich and complex, as Bowen recites the poem it comes across as overly dramatic and artificial. We see nothing of the La Petenera Utrera described in his introduction. Bowen plays only the agony of losing one’s race and culture, and she does so in a very 20th-century, American way.

In Spain, Utrera writes, performances like this are known as el arte de declamacion, a style taught to all theater majors in European universities. The closest thing to it in Chicago would be performance poetry, but the styles and attitudes of the two are so wildly different they can’t really be compared. Spanish culture has a different respect for passion and pain, often turning it into a noble entity. That attitude is difficult to translate. Utrera captures it in his music, and Bowen makes an honest, respectable effort, yet she undermines herself with physical gestures that seem forced, exaggerated–as if she doesn’t trust the power of the words.

Overall, La Petenera feels like a fish out of water. Occasionally it offers a glimpse into the Andalusian soul, but it doesn’t give enough of the culture for American audiences to understand or truly respect it. When Utrera performed La Petenera in Madrid, it was done in a more traditional flamenco style with six dancers, three guitarists, and two singers. The addition of true flamenco dancers and singers (Utrera admits his voice is weak) might fill in some of the holes in this production, which is performed with genuine passion but doesn’t leave much to chew on.