Lovers of 19th and 20th century zarzuela have had to wait until the 21st for the arrival of a broad choice of reference books. The current wave of guides, companions and dictionaries - not to mention substantial studies of individual composers - could only come to shore once the great floodtide of new works ebbed away to less than a trickle. The demise of the romantic zarzuela has left us time to take stock, develop critical judgements, re-evaluate some of those works which the 100-year surge of creativity caused to sink beneath the surface.
Of all these new books ICCMU's massive Diccionario de la Zarzuela España e Hispanoamérica has been most eagerly awaited; so let me say at once that it covers the field magnificently, with a depth and breadth unlikely ever to be surpassed. This first of two volumes has hundreds of biographical entries on composers, librettists, entrepreneurs and performers, as well as a large number of long entries devoted to individual zarzuelas. Written by leading academics, these encompass synopses and substantial commentaries as well as complete original cast lists and detailed musical contents.
Want to know more about vaguely familiar works of the quality of Vives' Los Flamencos or Barbieri's lively De Getafe al Paraíso? Need to check the full musical contents of La chulapona, or the original cast of El asombro de Damasco? Curious to learn more about the dramatic context of Calleja and Barrera's famous Granadinas from the one-act Emigrantes? These and countless others, interesting lesser pieces as well as the stalwart favourites, are treated fully and accurately, lavishly illustrated with a mixture of attractive sepia half-tone and colour graphics. Luis G. Iberni specially whets the appetite for a hearing of Chapí's elegant La Czarina (1892); Ramon Sobrino makes such a good case for Chueca and Valverde's De Madrid a París (1889) that it's hard to believe how it ever vanished without trace off the repertoire map - and that's just two of a multitude of works analysed at length.
Another impressive feature of the Diccionario is the full coverage it gives to work outside the main Spanish stream, Catalan, Basque or - from further afield - Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and other South and Central American countries. The vibrant Cuban tradition is specially well treated, with articles on many composers little known outside Havana - Jorge Anckermann for example has over 16 columns devoted to his works, in addition to a substantial biography. Important milestones such as Amalia Batista, El batey and Cristobal Colón are given notably detailed treatment. The fact that the Diccionario even makes space for a short entry on Apolo, a popular dog who starred in the Caracas production of El rey que rabío, testifies to the Diccionario's liveliness and lack of solemnity as well as its inclusivity!
Complete lists of stage works, with authors, theatres and dates of first performance are appended to the entries on more important composers. There are absorbing articles on many aspects of the tradition which normally get taken for granted, such as the zarzuela companies, as well as authoritative entries on movements such as Los bufos and género ínfimo. Satellite interests such as zarzuela on film also receive full measure. The volume is very clearly organised and cross-referenced: I only found one false trail - the véase from writer Rafael Fernández Shaw to El canastillo de fresas leads nowhere, as Guerrero's last zarzuela has surprisingly not been given a full treatment (a last-minute excision?). And talking of those Fernández Shaws Las bravías is cross-referenced under the wrong one - Guillermo instead of his father Carlos.
Having lived contentedly with the Diccionario now for three months, I still find myself surprised by some new article or other that has previously failed to catch my eye. The selection of works covered is judicious, with a bias towards neglected 19th century pieces; the style is consistent without apparently constraining the individuality of the distinguished contributors. Luis G. Iberni writes with outstanding authority and passion on Chapí and his works; Emilio Casares Rodicio, the General Editor, offers pointed and illuminating commentaries, with copious music examples, for many of the best-known zarzuelas. The book is flexible enough to accommodate their personal approaches without ever threatening to become incoherent.
Of course, no reference book on this scale can be fault free, but the Diccionario has been well proofed and is remarkably clear of error as to dates and details. As so often, the discographies for singers and individual zarzuelas are an Achilles heel, inconsistently presented, often incomplete (La corte de Faraón or Doña Francisquita), occasionally unclear or inaccurate (Don Manolito with Alfredo Kraus?? Bring him on! Alas, the CD detailed under Sorozábal's autumnal masterpiece is actually the familiar, classic version of La tabernera del puerto). La Gran Vía is not graced with a discography at all.
Even given the subjective nature of editorial selection Guridi is surely under-represented, with only El caserío apparently meriting full treatment. Why not La meiga, La bengala or the entrancing La contesa de la aguja y el dedal, when so many lesser works by other composers are covered in detail? The exclusion of through-written works such as Marina and Las golondrinas seems draconian, when they enjoyed major success in their earlier, zarzuela versions. Discussion of operas such as La Dolores and Margarita la tornera is more understandably confined to the articles on their respective composers. Don Gil de Alcalá doesn't make it either; but oddly Sorozábal's ópera chica Adiós a la Bohemia does - presumably on the tenuous ground that there are one or two very short passages of dialogue unaccompanied by music.
Last, traditionalists may be offended by the indexing of contents under European rather than Hispanic rules, so "Ch" entries for instance are not relegated to the end of the "C" section. Such minor quibbles scarcely detract from the overall excellence of the undoubted gold standard for zarzuela studies. 40 Euros is a staggeringly low price for such a treasure trove of reliable factual information, comment and graphic documentation. For any zarzuela lover with even a modicum of Spanish, the ICCMU Diccionario is quite simply indispensable.
© Christopher Webber 2003