For almost fifty years I have waited for a book in English on zarzuela. Now two come along together! Narrowly beating Christopher Webbers The Zarzuela Companion to the bus stop is this offering from Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.
Vincent J. Cincotta has seemingly an ideal background for an English-language book on the genre. Born in New York, he thus has English as his main language, but he also has a doctorate in Spanish (as well as Italian) and was for ten years a course director in Spanish studies at the University of Wollongong. The 766 pages of his book bear evidence to the extent of his exposure to Spanish literature on the genre, resulting in a copiously illustrated offering with a great deal of valuable information. Most particularly, Part 1 devotes 90 pages to a handsomely illustrated history of the genre, Part 2 some 400 pages to information on 90 composers and 72 librettists. These entries comprise biographical summaries, followed by extensive lists of the subjects works. Much of the information is otherwise unavailable in English, some of it not so conveniently even in Spanish.
Alas doubts soon begin to emerge. To Cincotta's credit he expresses opinions, but perhaps inevitably ones that not everyone will share. I know one person in particular who would scarcely agree that Sorozábal was "not gifted with the same creative imagination as Moreno Torroba" (p. 85). More worrying is the impression that Cincotta is expressing received opinions rather than his own. Thus, for instance, he states that "according to most critics, Fernández Caballero's masterpiece remains the one-act three-scene Gigantes y cabezudos". The implied contrary view never materialises, and one is left in the dark on Cincotta's own feelings.
Doubts about the reliability of the composer entries also emerge the more one looks. Especially curious is the entry for Manuel Quiroga. Quiroga made his mark not as a zarzuela composer but as the leading mid-twentieth-century composer of Spanish popular songs or coplas. For some reason Cincotta refers to these as tonadillas, a term usually applied to something different altogether. Cincotta's biographical note of Quiroga follows Roger Alier closely, right down to mentioning certain specific zarzuelas. But then, when Cincotta comes to listing Quiroga's output, he omits those titles altogether. Instead he cites some totally different works, which in fact seem to have been just some of the many spectacular variety shows to which Quiroga contributed.
Curious, too, is the listing of "more than 3,300 zarzuelas". This includes all the titles in the lists accompanying the biographies of composers and librettists and more besides. Superficially the list is fine, and indeed it could be an invaluable reference source - if only one could be sure how far to trust it. As it is, it provides further demonstration of the limitations of Cincotta's penetration and understanding, and his lack of discriminating use of material. It may matter little that the list includes revistas as well as operas. But what about (to cite just a few) Offenbach's La bella Elena [La Belle Hélène], Lecocq's Las cien doncellas [Les Cent Vierges], Fall's La Princesita del Dollar [Die Dollarprinzessin] and Lehár's Renato, Conde de Luxemburgo [Der Graf von Luxemburg]? And what about Jacobi's Jebill [recte Sybill?] and Johann Strauss's El sueño de un vals [Oscar Straus's Ein Walzertraum!]? The impression that Cincotta is unaware that these works were merely adaptations of foreign operettas is heightened by such references in the biographical section as:- "Las cien doncellas written by José Coll y Britapaja was adapted into a libretto by Pastorfido in 1872 and set to music by Charles Lecocq in 1872."
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Cincotta's failure to get inside the genre is his section containing synopses of popular zarzuelas. Of all the ways in which zarzuela can be sold to a wider public, an explanation of what is actually going on in the works is surely the most important. Yet, for all his 766 pages, Cincotta offers no more than twenty synopses. These include La chulapona but not Luisa Fernanda, La alegría de la huerta rather than La Gran Vía, La leyenda del beso but not La del soto del Parral, and both La boda de Luis Alonso and El baile de Luis Alonso rather than La tempranica. Moreover, the synopses are all too clearly based on recordings rather than actual libretti. For La chulapona he lists three recordings that are actually one and the same, and his list of musical items makes no mention of numbers omitted from the recording and revealed in all their beauty in the Teatro de la Zarzuela's production of recent years.
It is, of course, impossible to avoid error in a work of this scale, and I do not wish to overstate the volume's shortcomings. In his acknowledgements, Cincotta makes generous mention of my own meagre efforts to promote zarzuela, and I wish I could repay the compliment. Certainly I cannot but admire his industry and determination. The book undoubtedly contains much that is useful, if only one could be sure how much to trust. Perhaps most disappointingly the book seems all too obviously an assemblage of second-hand material, giving too little impression of real understanding what the repertory is really all about. Even without the misfortune of arriving almost simultaneously with Christopher Webber's book, it is not really the book for which I have been waiting for all these years. "A complete reference" it scarcely is; "the definitive book on Zarzuela" it most certainly isn't.
© Andrew Lamb 2003
Zarzuela, The Spanish Lyric Theatre: A Complete Reference, by Vincent J. Cincotta. University of Wollongong Press, 2002. xx + 766 pp, paperback, AU$130 plus AU$30 international postage. ISBN 0 86418 700 9.