In the Musty Music Room
or: Fool's Gold

 Il tutore burlato    Don Chisciotte
 La conquista di Granata       La fontana del placer

Scene: A musty music room. Old manuscripts lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor, some showing signs of damage from fire and flood, others half-nibbled by hungry mice. A group of equally musty musicologists are milling round, turning over the refuse with feverish, desperate enthusiasm. “It must be here somewhere,” mutters one, thumbing through a pile of rotting manuscripts. “No,” says another, “not there. You’re on the wrong track completely. That’s all zarzuela. If we’re to find the lost masterpiece of Spanish music, it must be an opera, and – obviously – it must be in Italian.” “Eureka!” cries another, pulling a particularly dirty score from the dustiest corner, “Gold at last!” The musicologists cluster eagerly around….

Il tutore burlatoIl tutore burlato (Opera buffa in three acts, Vicente Martín y Soler)
Les Talens Lyriques, d. Christophe Rousset
Editions de L’Oiseau-Lyre, 0028947662631 (2-CD, 91:30)
[Notes: Spanish/English. Libretto: Italian/Spanish/English]

This is the original version of Martín’s first score for the stage, written when he was just 21. It’s a light comic opera in the classic mould, thorough-sung and with the mixture as usual: an aging (bass) guardian and his pretty (soprano) ward, a dashing (tenor) aristocrat and a brace of comic servants. Fluent, swift and sweet on the ear, its success at the Spanish court propelled its composer to fame and an international career. But though it does display some of the individual brush-strokes which mark Martín’s best stage works such as Una cosa rara, it lacks their theatrical spark and clearly delineated characters. The one aria in popular Seguidilla style hinting at Martín’s Spanish origin happens to amongst the best. In sum, Il tutore burlato is intelligent, elegant but bland.

Pablo Esteve’s Spanish-language zarzuela version La madrileña with spoken dialogue instead of recitatives was enjoyably done by Capella de Ministrers some years ago on one well-filled CD, and predictably polished though Les Talens Lyriques are the international cast do too little with the text to render their roles any less generic. Il tutor burlado has been staged in Madrid, but this recording hails from the little theatre of the Segovia Palace where the opera was premiered in 1775, its boomy acoustic tempered by close-miked, clean production.

Silence fell. A sense of disappointment gripped the hearts of the searchers. Suddenly, the gloom was lightened by a faint whistle emanating from a dark corner of the room. “Aha…. now this might be something more like. It’s based on Don Quijote, and its by Manuel García, no less!”

Don ChisciotteDon Chisciotte (Opera in two acts, Manuel García)
Soloists, Orquesta de Cámara Galega, Coro Intermezzo, c. Juan de Udaeta
Almaviva Serie Clásica DS-0149 (2-CD, 156:53)
[Notes and synopsis: Spanish/English. Libretto: Italian/Spanish]

One of the most remarkable all-rounders in Spanish music, García (1775–1832) was a great tenor, fine actor and energetic impresario, father of a brood which included both Pauline Viardot and the legendary María Malibrán, whose careers would make good operas in themselves. His stage work is divided between Spanish works from the early Madrid years, and his later Italian, Paris-London output written in what Juan de Udaeta’s note for the defence describes as “international style”. Put crudely, this is bel canto opera some way after Rossini, formulaic and predictable, facile enough to show off the singers, ambitiously large-scale but lacking personality. Perhaps its superficiality would matter less if the subject matter were less deeply embedded in the Spanish psyche. As it is García reduces Cervantes’ epic to an over-long string of semi-buffa pranks, and the happy ending is as anodyne as it is welcome.

The performance, recorded live at Seville’s Maestranza in 2006, is rough and ready. A capable Spanish cast led by Ángel Rodríguez’s tenor mad Don and Javier Galán’s bluff bass Sancho Panza try hard – sometimes a little too hard – to bring the Italian text to life. All spoken dialogue has been removed to squeeze the piece onto two CDs, which involves a dead halt and disc turn half way through the Act 1 finale. It’s touching to hear veteran Pedro Farrés, the memorable Juan de Eguía in Sorozábal’s 1971 recording of La tabernera del puerto, in the cameo role of the Police Inspector. Despite that, given the imprecise ensemble and a coarse recording afflicted by stage thumps and electronic gremlins, there’s little beyond its obscurity to commend this tiresome Don Chisciotte for repeated listening.

A hopeful cry rent the stale and fetid air: “Arrieta!” They rushed to look, as the wiliest scavenger held up a dog-eared score in triumph, stamped with the royal coat of arms. Here was the real deal, surely – a Spanish lad trained up in Italy at royal expense, whose later zarzuelas were both tuneful and dramatically incisive. And in Marina he’d penned the only 19th century Spanish through-written opera to hold the native stage. What might not Arrieta have managed in Italian, the proper language for this sort of thing?

La conquista di GranataLa conquista di Granata (Opera in three acts, Emilio Arrieta)
Soloists, Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, c. Jesús López Cobos
Dynamic CDS 618/1-2 (2-CD, 133:27)
[Notes and synopsis: Italian/English/German/French/Spanish. Libretto: Italian/English]

Compared with its predecessor Ildegonda, La conquista di Granata (1850) boasts a firmer grasp of Donizettian musical dramaturgy, tasteful orchestration, some stout Verdian muscle and some good, swinging tunes. A celebration of the military and Catholic virtues of Spain’s first Isabel, seasoned with cross-and-crescent love interest, Temistocle Solera’s libretto was a smart tribute to his patron (and perhaps lover) Queen Isabel II, herself the most fervent supporter of its young composer. Yet despite these strong nationalist credentials the opera enjoyed only a succès d'estime, gathering dust for 150 years until this 2006 Teatro Real concert revival. There’s little wrong with it, but not enough right (and absolutely nothing Spanish). Arrieta’s pretty style is not personal, his theatre sense too blunt to fully grasp the exotic opportunities of the Moorish setting, his dramatic insight too thin to interest us even spasmodically in Solera’s puppets.

The performance does everything it can to coax them into life. Mariola Cantarero and José Bros as the Moorish and Christian lovers lead a splendid cast with thrilling beauty. Ana Ibarra is in powerful form as the Queen. Ángel Ódena makes a stentorian Hero’s Friend. Alistair Miles’s Muley-Hassem almost overcomes the villainous scent of wood and papier-mâché. The recording is outstandingly clear, full and well-balanced, much the best of the batch. Yet even conducted, sung and played with this panache and passion, La conquista di Granata comes across as a smoothly effective student exercise rather than the genuine article. The sum is much less than the parts. Sorry to be a bore, but the question comes again: Why? Why spend valuable time and money reviving Arrieta’s juvenile Italian operas, when his mature Spanish zarzuelas are allowed to rot?

Howling cries of indignation arise from the hordes. A white-bearded elder steps out from the cobwebbed gloom to battle such shocking heresy. “Why? Why?? Because it is opera! Because it is Italian! Because the major corporate and public institutions are still willing to bankroll performances and recordings of mediocre works in a language the audience doesn’t understand. Because even a third-rate opera is by definition better art than a first-rate zarzuela. Art, my friend, that is what this is all about!” The hordes rush from the room, jostling to be first to reach the deeper catacombs, to continue their eternal search for that lost masterpiece. In their flight, a slim score slips unregarded to the floor...

La fontana del placerLa fontana del placer (Zarzuela in two acts, José Castel)
Compañía Teatro del Príncipe, d. Pablo Heras-Casado
Música Antigua Aranjuez MAA 007 (77:00)
[Notes and synopsis: Spanish/English/French/German/Italian. Libretto: Spanish]

The Navarran José Castel (1737–1807) enjoyed a successful career in his native Tudela before relocating to Madrid around 1760, where he flourished as a church and theatre composer, doubling as printer and publisher. In his time he was esteemed a rival to Haydn and Pleyel in instrumental music, but after his death he suffered the fate of so many good Spanish composers. Recent revivals of his tonadillas have shown that neglect to be undeserved, and the full-length La fontana del placer (well received at the Teatro del Príncipe in 1776, but not revived until this 2007 production for the Aranjuez Early Music Festival) proves an enjoyable light comedy, full of attractive music which yokes an Italian sense of vocal line to native Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase.

The most interesting feature about the upstairs-downstairs plot is that it centres on the figure of Don Narciso, a middle-aged Spaniard who has made his money in America and comes back to marry his childhood sweetheart… but this is not Los gavilanes, and after some farcical complications Narciso manages to do just that. Narciso’s entrance aria is a complex 7-minute showpiece, passionate and tender by turns, not far removed from the operatic style of Haydn but with an edgy character all its own. It’s a real stormer, and Juan Noval-Moro copes valiantly with the high tessitura and fearsome coloratura, written to display the talents of the famous tenor José Ordóñez “El Mayorito”. His equally tough full-dress Act 2 aria is not quite at this musical level. The sweetheart Teresa’s two arias offer sophisticated structures on a similar scale, and Eugenia Enguita’s warm soprano provides considerable pleasure in both.

The four servants’ numbers are straightforward, witty and brief, though the Sexteto which concludes the farcical first act again offers a fascinating hybrid between the Italian buffa style and the more grounded flavour of a Madrid tonadilla. An over-resonant acoustic and recessed placing for the singers blunts the clarity of the robust and lively reading, and fitting the score onto one CD has meant the almost complete removal of dialogue, but these are small prices to pay for this “fountain of pleasure”. The booklet is imaginatively produced, with some evocative period watercolours as well as Aranjuez production shots. Of these four stage works, it is this one – by a virtually unknown composer, setting his own language – which  provides the most stimulating and consistent entertainment.

Instead of rummaging through back drawers seeking out lost masterpieces of Spanish opera, the musicologists would do better to follow Juan Pablo Fernández-Cortés (whose edition of Castel’s score this is) by spending more time searching for lost treasures in native forms. Judging from La fontana del placer there should be plenty there to occupy their time and skill. Zarzuela, not Italian opera, is Spain’s truest and most distinctive contribution to lyric theatre history. How much longer will it take the corporate and community sponsors to accept that?

© Christopher Webber 2009

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7 May 2009