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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.

Zarzuelas — Arrieta: Marina; Bretón: La verbena de la paloma; Vives: Bohemios and Doña Francisquita.

María Bayo, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, et. al.

Naïve V5120 [6CDs]

$39.99  Click to buy

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

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