“Ou l’opéra comique espagnol de Z à A” runs the header, and that’s what we get in this personal, opinionated and extremely well-informed guide. Pierre-René Serna is a leading French journalist and musicologist with books on Berlioz and Wagner to his name, and he has conjured up an attractively designed, brilliantly well-written though in one aspect baffling addition to zarzuela’s literature.
“Z à A”? Precisely that. With charming, Lewis Carroll logic, Serna begins at the word Zarzuela, working steadily backwards to AAA (Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente to you and me.) The quirky organisation is mirrored by his engaging writing style, which is light, airy and well-honed to wield the scalpel where the author comes to judgement – as with his surgically precise analysis of the faults, flaws and second-hand Italianate smell of the unsinkable Marina. The reliability of his judgement, his analytical clarity and above all his massive enthusiasm for the genre make Serna’s book a most enjoyable browse. Everyone who picks this up will learn something – I certainly did.
Let me catalogue the contents soberly. First, Serna provides a mix of lively general articles on zarzuela and its history, as well as a useful chronology: his in-depth championing of zarzuela barroca is especially valuable. There are also good entries on general topics such as Bibliotèque and Discotèque, where he informatively describes the written and recorded history of the genre, including internet sites; and on pertinent places (Madrid, Barcelona, The Americas & Philippines), with buildings (Teatro de la Zarzuela) also strewn into the alphabetical soup. In addition Serna introduces off-centre topics which simply interest him, such as Nuits et Minuit, an evocative portrait of Madrid’s special night charms quoting from Stravinsky before circling back to Teatro por horas, which gets a useful page to itself. There is no doubt that Serna loves Madrid as much as he loves zarzuela.
Then we come to what is (or should be) the main meat of any guide: The writers are given short shrift, packed together hugger-mugger under Livrets et librettistes; but the articles on composers and individual works are well organised as to shape and scope. The article on La dolorosa serves as an admirable example, beginning as it does with general comments including a reference to Grémillon’s epochal film, and picking up on the latent expressionism yoked to verismo trappings in the scenario and treatment. Then follows a pithy but accurate summary of the action, and a longer, well-informed and highly pertinent discussion of the music: there’s a notable aperçu as to the effect of Serrano’s orchestration (“L’orchestre se contentant lui aussi du rôle de faire-valoir, officiant le plus souvent comme une grande guitare”).
But delving deeper the book’s major drawback becomes apparent: its highly personal, selective criteria. We know that space is at a premium, but the choice of composers relegated to near-random footnotes in major articles raises eyebrows: for Padilla “Voir Giménez”; for Millán “Voir Vives”; for Guridi “Voir Usandizaga”. Turning to Usandizaga, poor Guridi is granted a terse paragraph at the end of a two-and-a half page essay, turning the article into a sort of Basque ghetto; and although Las golondrinas (in its popular operatic version by the composer’s brother Ramón) is duly granted a full entry containing some admirable remarks about the need to revive the original zarzuela version, there is nothing at all on El caserío or any of Guridi’s other major scores.
Similarly, it is great to find full articles devoted to little-known masterworks such as Celos aun del aire matan and Salir el amor del mundo. But where are Gigantes y cabezudos and El dúo de la Africana? We search in vain for either La tabernera del puerto or La del manojo de rosas. As for Los claveles and La chulapona … dream on! The extreme case is the omission of both El barberillo de Lavapiés and Doña Francisquita – by any measure two cornerstones of the repertoire. Admittedly Serna does at least mention all these lost lambs and highlight one, plump sheep from most of their composers – Barbieri is represented, understandably enough, by Pan y toros. But with Sorozábal, for example, is it not curiously odd to go for La eterna canción rather than either of his two most famous scores? Not to mention Katiuska, Black el payaso, Don Manolito… all of which are far more likely to be encountered, much more central to the repertoire than the one piece he does choose.
Space is at a premium, sure. And this is not about aesthetic judgements. No – we all have our favourites, and that’s why we write books like this in the first place. But my question is this: who is the Guide aimed at? If it is intended as a reference work, Serna’s omissions pretty much spike his guns. If it’s for the general reader who wants a clear overview, they’ll get a strangely warped perspective from a book which devotes space and expertise to Júpiter y Semele and Las labradoras de Murcia but not Doña Francisquita or La del manojo de rosas. Serna’s huge partiality for his chosen topics turns out to be a tremendous weapon, but a two-edged one. After all, he surely only included Marina because he felt he had to! So why not El barberillo... ?
In the final analysis, Guide de la Zarzuela can be heartily recommended for browsing by those of us who already know our onions, but only with reservations for those who don’t. There’s a useful appendix on recordings, and partial indexes on the works and composers mentioned or discussed. His book is at all times highly stimulating and entertaining; and personally I am inclined to indulge Serna’s sins of omission where his writing is so good, his critical judgement so reliable. I think his countryman Camille Saint-Saëns (who does get an entry!) would have been vastly amused by it too, and that says a great deal for the book’s literary and musical acumen.
© Christopher Webber 2013
3 January 2013