Museo Nacional del Teatro

La Zarzuela Patrimonio de la Hispanidad

La Zarzuela
Patrimonio de la Hispanidad

Crónica cantada de nuestra vida

Museo Nacional del Teatro exhibition catalogue, 2023
(254pp, €30)

ISBN 978-84-9041-015-8

Review by Christopher Webber

This is an catalogue like no other. From June 29 to November 5, Spain’s National Theatre Museum in Almagro, Ciudad Real – an architectural gem, set in the 17th-century Los Palacios de los Maestres de Orden de Calatrava – hosts a major exhibition devoted to the history of zarzuela. The catalogue offers the expected guide to the 175 exhibits, taken from a variety of sources including SGAE and the Spanish National Library, and is copiously illustrated with high-quality reproductions of posters, set designs, costumes and photographs. It’s a great souvenir in its own right, yet this guide is merely the appendix to a large-format book offering something even more special – a brief, illustrated history of zarzuela, from its origins right up to Trato de favor, premiered in early May at Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela, just before the catalogue went to press.

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The exhibition’s Curator is Spain’s leading musicologist Emilio Casares Rodicio, editor of the indispensable Diccionario de la Zarzuela and many other publications. Although others are named as ‘general coordinators’ for the book, there is no mistaking his guiding hand on the tiller; and his vigorous Prologue introduces the 13 chapters, throwing down the gauntlet to Adolfo Salazar’s ‘erroneous vision’ of zarzuela as a depressive force in Spanish life and music. On the contrary, Casares finds zarzuela a vital part of Spain’s patrimony, a multiform and eclectic hybrid genre reflecting tradition and modernity, national and international trends in music and theatre.

Museo Nacional del TeatroThe idea of ‘patrimony’ ties in with the Spanish Government’s recent application to UNESCO, to have zarzuela – whatever might be meant by the word – declared an ‘intangible cultural heritage’. This application attempts to corral highly tangible zarzuela off from opera, allying it more closely with oral traditions (such as Mongolian coaxing rituals for camels) or local community pursuits (such as the manufacture of Portuguese cow bells). Looked at from a musicological perspective, Spain’s application is a very odd one, doubtless tied in with current divisions in her politics, rather than having any basis in aesthetic reality.

Professor Casares’s rallying cry also provokes thoughts over his idea of a ‘hybrid’, overarching genre. I should love to debate that with him; but more importantly, from the perspective of the current publication, Casares provides the directional searchlight for its historical account, written along traditional lines by a galaxy of academic stars.

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The organisation is mostly chronological; though after Luis Antonio González Marín’s authoritative guide to the 17th and 18th centuries comes an oddly-positioned chapter from M. Pilar Espín Templado devoted to zarzuela librettos and librettists, from Cervantes down to our own time. The eminent wife-and-husband team of María Encina Cortizo and Ramón Sobrino divide the 19th century between them, organising their coverage of a daunting number of exceptional, multi-patterned works with firm clarity. As they must find space to mention everything from zarzuela grande and its precursors, through Offenbachian ópera bufa to teatro por horas and early revue, it’s little wonder that some of their taxonomical divisions strain at the seams – though their beautifully-chosen graphic illustrations help bring their massive canvas into focus.

After Francesc Cortés’s assured excursion into Catalan zarzuela, we return to the chronological path with Andrea García Torres’ valuable chapter on the early 20th century’s alleged ‘género ínfimo’. Rather than questioning the term, she describes the genesis of these allegedly frivolous one-acters with clarity, finding space for contemporary debates over sexual licence led by the philosopher Unamuno. Though this provides excellent context, Torres herself seems happy to characterise zarzuela ínfima as exploitative pornography, leaving its wider sociological-aesthetic valorisation to Celsa Alonso’s following chapter, which flags up Viérgol and Calleja’s important ‘trilogía social’ before narrating the story of revue – wonderfully well – from the Belle Époque through to musical comedy in the Franco era. Once again, both chapters are fantastically illustrated.

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The chronology loops back, to take in Ignacio Jassa Haro’s expert chapter on ‘opereta española’, which he characterises nicely as ‘escurrididizo’ (slippery), in its elusive flirtations with Vienna, London and Paris, as well as género chico. This connects with Elena Torres Clemente’s impeccable account of ‘silver age’ zarzuela of the 1920s, in all its nostalgic and regional colour, which in turn segues seamlessly into Mario Lerena’s penetrating presentation of the 1930s ‘young guns’ Torroba and Sorozábal. Lerena takes us through much of the Franco era, where Manuel Lagos Gismero takes up the baton, running us through to the present day, and this year’s Trato de favor.

Two further, special chapters remain. First comes an clear and very valuable account of the history of SGAE, and its phenomenal archive resources, from CEDOA’s Director Ma Luz González Peña. Last – though far from least – Victoria Eli Rodríguez contributes a bright and lucid chapter on zarzuela in the Americas, focused (though far from exclusively) on the riches of zarzuela cubana.

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Viewed simply as a history, La Zarzuela, Patrimonio de la Hispanidad succeeds in doing what Professor Casares must have wished, by providing a well-ordered, mainstream guide to the exhibition’s historical panorama. It does have minor gremlins. First, given its inclusive approach, there are – inevitably – some long and heterogeneous lists of works and people, which might mesmerise readers unfamiliar with the territory. In any case, all the best works ‘break the rules’, which makes these generic lists misleading. Second, I suspect that printing must have been something of a rush-job, which has led to a number of typos and typesetting errors. These mistakes will surely be corrected in a second printing, which I hear is scheduled to accompany the exhibition’s revival next year in Madrid.

No matter. Minor criticisms apart, this is a catalogue book to be cherished, for its graphic beauties as much as its written content.

© Christopher Webber &, 2023

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