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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
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