Éditions mare & martin
This ambitious work is an amplification and continuation of Antoine le Duc’s La Zarzuela, Les origines du théâtre lyrique national en Espagne (1832-1851), a scholarly work of high quality which did precisely what its title indicated, providing a well-ordered and excellently researched examination of the works and movements culminating in de la Vega and Barbieri’s Jugar con fuego (1851), the epochal three-act work which opened the floodgates for the glorious, century-long history of the romantic zarzuela.
Le Duc’s eagerly-anticipated new book is a beast of different stripe. In place of linear, temporal order and academic methodology, we have a boldly impressionistic approach to his subject grouped into four Books, each divided into two or three Parts, subdivided into several Chapters. The first Book covers the ground of his earlier work (1832-1851); the second comprises two “chronologies anecdotiques” covering the 12 years to 1863, and what le Duc calls the género chico period, arbitrarily defined as 1868-1910. Book Three is a picaresque, equally anecdotal “Voyage au coeur de Género chico”: whilst the Fourth (“La Musique”) sketches structural and musico-theatrical analyses of a number of zarzuelas, all – with the exception of La verbena de la Paloma – taken from the pre-1851 or zarzuela grande periods. There’s no postscript, indeed little mention of any works written after the cut-off date of 1910.
There is no doubting le Duc’s love and enthusiasm for zarzuela, or his impressive factual knowledge; but his welter of dates, names, contemporary press reviews and libretto extracts have been assembled more in the manner of a huge, aphoristic chapbook than a finished whole. In the first three Books he gives us little in the way of authorial analysis, and the further away we are from 1851 the shakier the ground beneath us gets. He offers few signposts or personal judgements to alert academic or general readers to what’s important, what isn’t, or why. A modern Gallic spotlight on the French-inspired zarzuela libretti of the period would have been very valuable, but le Duc shies away even from that. He does occasionally filter discussions of (for example) typography or character types through the prism of classic French criticism, derived notably from Diderot and La Bruyere, but even this is not synthesised with his copious Spanish material.
When it comes to the sections on género chico the book’s systemic problems run deeper, with biographical sketches of Chueca, Chapí and Fernández Caballero scattered amongst chunks of dialogue and lyrics from one- and two-act sainetes of greater or lesser importance, pages devoted to Los bufos of Arderius, premieres at various theatres, zarzuela parodies, the creation of SGAE and what le Duc defines as “the decline” into the sexy, cuple-dominated género ínfimo after the turn of the century.
It is refreshing that received history, leading neatly from the pioneering La Gran Vía through to the triple triumph of La verbena de la Paloma, La revoltosa and Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente is thrown back into the melting pot, but le Duc’s anecdotal approach allows us little sight of the wood for the trees. There is virtually no discussion for example of the huge popular impact of La cancion de la Lola [sic.], which caused (as readers of Galdós’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta will know) seismic tremors in government confidence and stability at the time of its 1880 premiere. This lack of aesthetic or historical perspective makes the book exhausting rather than exhaustive, and limits its utility as a work of reference.
Technically, too, there are some problems. Despite the volume’s very handsome physical design and attractive layout, there are enough typographical errors in titles, dates, names and accents from the post-1851 period to suggest that independent proof-reading was limited (goodness knows it’s hard enough to get these things right!) More crucially, despite a full bibliography, timelines devoted to premieres and a summary table of contents, there is no index. In any book of 737 pages this would be an inconvenience, but in one so anecdotal and factually replete an index must be an indispensable cross-referential tool. Why is there none?
I’m sorry to write negatively, because Antoine le Duc’s zarzueloid zest comes across strongly, his effort is Herculean, his desire to put the genre on the map for the French-speaking world is greatly to be applauded. If only he had allowed himself more editorial space to step back, synthesise his facts and offer us better selected material and more personal insights, then we might well have had a volume of substance to match its bulk. As it is this Voyage autour du théâtre lyrique national espagnol makes a frustrating journey.
© Christopher Webber 2007
3 December 2007