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12 Jan 2007
ARBOS: El Centro de la Tierra
Most heroes in costume drama movies speak lines directly from our own time. I’ve yet to see a cinematic Roman general, being a serious hero, look at an animal’s liver and says: “ this smells bad; no battle today”.
Nevertheless people in the past often were far more superstitious than we are, and certainly were less cynical and naïve. Even then, one sympathizes with the bafflement of the Madrid public at the first (and probably last, one is not sure) performance of ‘El Centro de la Tierra’ at its première. Rarely has a more ridiculous libretto inspired a composer. Three Madrilenos fall into a crevice and arrive in the middle of the earth where they are considered to be gods by the gnomes, the minerals (living persons) and the natives of a hidden civilisation. They succeed in stealing a huge diamond and the few natives with doubts as to their godly descent are reassured by the tenor . . . playing an accordion. Though there are some comical scenes as in all zarzuelas, the central theme is treated seriously without satirizing a society as Paul Lincke did when he sent some heroes to the moon in his ‘Frau Luna,’ where they meet all the Greek and Roman gods.
Enrique Arbos’ music cannot really save the situation. The composer was the ‘Konzertmeister’ of the Berlin Philharmonic for several years and thus no mean musician. He knew his classics, especially Wagner, very well as is proven by the use of a Tristan chord and the triumphal march of the Gods in this zarzuela. But the composer had his roots firmly planted in his own country. When he was offered the conductorship of the newly formed Madrid Symphony, he returned home and conducted it for 35 years. Conducting meant the end of his composing years. The 100th anniversary of the orchestra was duly celebrated and the whole of Arbos’ output appeared on 3 boxed sets with his one zarzuela unexpectedly being unearthed. Arbos is not another Sorozabal, Morreno Torroba, Chapi, Luna or Vives and he probably couldn’t be after only one trial. Zarzuela lovers may regret the fact that more worthwhile zarzuelas are still awaiting a complete recording. On the other hand any zarzuela from the great century between 1840 and 1940 is welcome as the music always lies easily on the ear and is often very charming. The problem, if there is one, with Arbos is the fact that he is, as could be expected, an orchestral composer. The many dancing numbers in this long score are well worth listening too. But his vocal writing is marred by his being not accustomed to writing for the voice. The singers’ solos are not very distinguished and remain dancing numbers in disguise. All the singers are fine zarzuela performers, with good though not unexceptional voices to match their numbers and ensembles. Best of them all is baritone Javier Franco as the High Priest. José Luis Temes conducts the orchestra with a lot of conviction, not lingering on some awkward moments but making the best of the agreeable and indeed somewhat forgettable music.
One complaint: once again a Spanish recording label fails to give us a fine and exact translation of the sleeve notes. In the Spanish text the composer is born in 1863, in the English one in 1963. The biography of tenor Sanchez is deleted in the English version, etc. As a lot of visitors know the ‘mañana’ mentality has not completely died out in Spain and maybe some producers think the international market is not to be taken seriously. They forget that thanks to an outstanding generation of Spanish singers zarzuela is now to be found in many a collection of non-Spanish speaking people.