bleu nuit éditeur

La Zarzuela Romantique (Serna)

La Zarzuela

Pierre-René Serna

Collection horizons, bleu nuit éditeur, 2022 (176pp, 20€)

ISSN: 1769-2571

Anyone who has enjoyed Pierre-René Serna’s two previous books on zarzuela is sure to warm to a third helping of his in-depth knowledge, presented with love and literary skill. La Zarzuela Romantique is the logical successor to La Zarzuela Baroque and adopts the same format. Its 176 pages are packed with evocative graphics and a clear, readable narrative of zarzuela’s history from around 1800 to the present day – or even beyond, as it’s last word is to mention Tomás Marco’s Policías y ladrones, which isn’t due for performance at Teatro de la Zarzuela until 2023! The book ventures beyond Spain to discuss the Americas and Philippines, featuring especially useful material on South America, a misty area ignored by other zarzuela guides. It has some deliciously fresh anecdotes here, too. Who knew that Maria Callas, on departure from Mexico, was moved to tears by the spontaneous, communal singing of ‘Caminar’ from Las golondrinas? Who knew that Lecuona’s María la O and Roig’s Cecilia Valdés were once staged in Russia?

Pierre-Rene SernaSerna blows away the cobwebs at the start, in a practical discussion of what zarzuela actually is, rather than trying to define what it theoretically might be. He goes on to present his sensible reasons for using the term ‘romantic zarzuela’ to define the period from around 1830 to 1960, and finishes his opening chapter with a nod to the great Spanish singers who have sung zarzuela (i.e. just about anyone worth mentioning). Another three sections follow, two tightly focused on the first and second halves of the 19th century, with space for a brief description of zarzuela’s vocal types and an evocative pen-portrait of Madrid. Barbieri rightly crowns the second chapter, with Pan y Toros the first of eight works whose music is analysed here at length. The eight – which also include Curro Vargas, La dolorosa, La villana and La eterna canción as well as the more predictable La verbena de la Paloma, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente and Las golondrinas – is an unashamedly personal rather than ‘canonical’ selection, and why not, when there are so many potential choices?

The last and longest chapter is more complex, covering the 20th century. The sheer range of post-1900 zarzuela means that space is very limited, but Serna’s boldly non-chronological approach holds together, never descending into mere lists of names. Nearly everything’s here which ought to be: for me, one significant strand underplayed is the ‘regional zarzuela’ of the 1920s and 30s, briefly mentioned in a sentence on Luna’s La pícara molinera, but which the paragraphs on Alonso might have highlighted more effectively. This non-chronological approach also leads to minor repetitions – Guridi, for example, is mentioned in three separate contexts – but it is refreshing that individual composers and works are chosen for their artistic quality, rather than selected as exhibits for some sort of sociological museum.

ArrietaNor does Serna fall into the trap of over-stratifying his text according to sub-genres (or alleged sub-genres) such as zarzuela grande, zarzuela chica and género chico, though he does discuss these traditional (if distorting) divisions, as is right and proper. Instead he uses his ears and eyes, devoting space to what seems important to him, rather than what is conventionally assumed to be so. Thus, for example, he boldly states that the Arrieta of El domino azul is more interesting than the Arrieta of Marina; while his decision to devote more space to Pablo Sorozábal than to the other ‘last generation’ maestros put together points to an acknowledgement of 21st century aesthetics, a change in tastes which some Spanish critics still can’t see, or perhaps lack the courage to accept. It can be no accident that Sorozábal’s portrait adorns the front cover, alongside Barbieri, Chapí and Chueca.

Like all such guides, La Zarzuela Romantique is not free from minor slips and over-simplifications. Gaztambide’s El sueño de una noche de verano (for example) is not inspired by Shakespeare’s play, as Serna seems to imply, but is a Spanish recasting of the brilliant French libretto written for Ambroise Thomas’s opera, inventing a summer night’s intrigue between the drunken Shakespeare and his patron, Good Queen Bess – the zarzuela was an overt attempt to encourage Spain’s Isabel II to likewise engage more actively in theatrical promotion. There are some debatable emphases, too. In pinpointing zarzuela’s essential ‘irreverence’ (quoting Nietzsche on the subject) and its ‘sol y sombra’ distance from the culinary concoctions of operetta, does Serna perhaps place too much emphasis on ‘sol’ and not enough on ‘sombra’? For example, in claiming that zarzuela never falls into the despairing neurosis of much 20th century art, does he not ignore the Zolaesque underbelly of allegedly ‘frivolous’ ínfimo zarzuela? Overlooking the Dario Fo-like social disruptions of Las bribonas, or such dark tracts as Chueca’s La borracha (described by 1904 reviewers as bleaker than Ibsen!), perhaps paints an over-optimistic picture.

Much more important, though, is La Zarzuela Romantique’s intelligence, personality and clear writing, which carry us through 176 pages without any longueurs. Serna ices the cake with a timeline, bibliography and discography, as well as a brief index to people and titles mentioned. I must say that France is fortunate to have such an astutely communicative writer, to point them towards the underprized glories of romantic zarzuela.

© Christopher Webber &, 2022

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