16 Mar 2008
Zarzuelas — Arrieta: Marina; Bretón: La verbena de la paloma; Vives: Bohemios and Doña Francisquita
The Spanish comical lyric genre of the zarzuela has long been considered the stepchild of opera.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Spanish comical lyric genre of the zarzuela has long been considered the stepchild of opera.
As popular musical theater which flourished primarily in the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, it has long since been pronounced officially dead as an art form. Several factors contributing to its demise may readily be identified: for example, its ties to romantic nationalism and its favored status with Spain’s monarchy—the very genre was named for the bramble bushes outside the king’s hunting lodge!—led to its decline during the Spanish Civil War. Likewise, during Franco’s reign of terror, Spain was for all practical purposes cut off from the rest of Europe, preventing the sort of artistic cross-pollination (or at least appreciation) which might otherwise have taken place. Nonetheless, the zarzuela arguably played an important rôle in the creation of modern-day Spanish national consciousness. As such, it is being revived today as both a national source of pride and a long-neglected contribution to the world’s musical scene. This collection participates effectively in that endeavour.
It should be clarified that these are not new recordings. Rather, this set gathers together previous recordings made in Madrid and Tenerife from 1993, 1994 and 1998. Given that factor, the first question to be asked of any collection of previously-released works is: what principle or criterion was used to select them? The particular collection in question is remarkably coherent. In fact, an exploration of the hidden networks of parentesco, or kinship, underlying this set will allow us a glimpse of the entire history of this short-lived genre.
Each of the works selected for inclusion here is a classic in its own right. Their grouping is a careful assortment of género grande (“grand” or full-length zarzuelas, usually in three acts) and género chico, or smaller works, usually limited to one-act pieces. But a higher purpose was at work here than merely to offer the listener a pleasant variety. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the first composer represented here, Emilio Arrieta (1823-1894), was actually the teacher of the second, Tomás Bretón (1850-1925). The third composer, Amadeo Vives (1871-1932), in turn set out, in Doña Francisquita, explicitly to imitate La verbena de la Paloma, by Bretón. So we see that these works exist not in isolation, but instead in symbiotic relationship to one another.
Likewise, in these recordings, these singers carry on an intimate and—in some cases—familial tradition. It is a little-known fact that the great opera star Plácido Domingo was born to two zarzuela singers who themselves performed with a touring company in Mexico, where they took their son along to work. Growing up in this environment, which might be likened to the Spanish equivalent of vaudeville, profoundly influenced the young singer and encouraged him to pursue a musical career. This CD collection is not the only time he has chosen, proudly, to return to his roots. In 2007, Domingo assisted with the production of another recording of zarzuela arias by stepping in himself to conduct the orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid.
Listening to this music, one can see how such fierce—indeed, almost visceral— loyalty to this genre is well justified. Written by composers as they sat in cafés and town squares (we actually know this in the case of Bretón, who confessed it), or as the direct result of rediscovering old songs in the town library (in the case of Vives), these pieces offer a picturesque glimpse of popular life. A true appreciation for zarzuela must begin by accepting it on its own terms. This is not, nor was it ever intended to be, highbrow entertainment. The incorporation of flamenco, habaneras and other distinctly Spanish sounds affords the genre a high degree of authenticity on a cultural scene in Spain which is too often otherwise dismissed as largely derivative. A truly native genre, the zarzuela until recently survived along with bull fights merely as an attraction for tourists. Now, with these recordings, music lovers are beginning to see their error in having ignored this vibrant art form.
The one real drawback to this boxed set is the printed book of introductory essays and librettos. The translations are frankly abysmal and the proofreading nonexistent. Here we find such unfelicitous mistakes as the use of “third” for “thin,” “lot” for “not,” and “car” for “ear” (!). The result is at times only barely comprehensible, and then only with reference to the originals. This was a shoddy way to package an otherwise quality collection.
Hilaire Kallendorf, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies
Texas A&M University