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.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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