Deutsche Grammophon

(DG 0028947639640)

Viva Madrid

Zarzuela gala

La verbena de la Paloma (Bretón): Preludio; La chulapona (Torroba): Chotis y Pasacalle madrileño, Dúo habanera, Chotis; Luisa Fernanda (Torroba): Romanza De Javier; El último romántico (Soutullo y Vert): “Voy con mi mantilla a los toros”; Maravilla (Torroba): Romanza de Rafael; Don Manolito (Sorozábal): Canto a Madrid; La calesera (Alonso): “Agua que río abajo”, Pasacalle de los chisperos; El barberillo de Lavapiés (Barbieri): Canción de Paloma, Caleseras; El año pasado por agua (Chueca): Dúo de los paraguas; María Manuela (Torroba): Pantomima de los piropos; La del manojo de rosas (Sorozábal): Romanza de Joaquín; Doña Mariquita de mi corazón (Alonso): “Jueves Santo madrileño”; Doña Francisquita (Vives): Canción de la Juventud, Pasacalle “Soy madrileña”.
Plácido Domingo (tenor), Amparo Navarro (soprano), Leticia Rodríguez (mezzo-soprano), Enrique Ferrer (tenor), Enrique R. del Portal (tenor), Azucena López (soprano), Gerardo López (tenor), Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid, c. Miguel Roa

DG 0028947639640 [TT=64:36]
[rec. Madrid, July 2009]

The appearance of a modern zarzuela recording is always a cause for great rejoicing, for dusting down a bottle of fine manzanilla and for baking a fresh batch of magdalenas. So it was when I discovered this CD. According to the blurb from the Spanish online seller Zona de Compras the programme was released late in 2010 to coincide with the onset of preparations for Plácido Domingo’s 70th birthday in January 2011. Strangely, no mention is made of this anniversary in the accompanying booklet. The involvement of this legendary artist in the history of modern zarzuela performance, both live and in the recording studio, needs no explanation here; and it was certainly fitting that Don Plácido should have been the lynchpin of this compilation.

First, full marks to the programme’s compiler. Favourites sit side by side with the less familiar, and a couple of relative rarities are included for good measure. For example how often do we get to hear a modern recording of the pasodoble from Alonso’s Doña Mariquita de mi corazón? DG’s presentation borders on the luxurious with a glossy, 80-page booklet and sturdy protective slipcase. Continuing the good practice observed in its now sadly defunct zarzuela series, DG has continued to acknowledge the English-speaking fan base by including not only an informative essay about the history of zarzuela and the individual works, but – milagro de milagros – full sung texts with English translations by Gregory Starkey. So far, so good.

It cannot be denied that the fresh studio sound makes this compilation an important addition to the catalogue. If only the performances were of comparable quality. Because ¡ay de mi! they are not. While our ears are occasionally caressed, a few tracks had me leaping for the fast forward button – particularly those in which we have to endure the strangled sounds of Enrique Ferrer who, on the showing of his ancient-sounding ‘student’ in the Doña Francisquita selection, really should consider a trip to the Job Centre. He is frankly awful, and his contributions amount to vocal butchery.

The best thing on this disc is Amparro Navarro, but even she sounds a little lumpen and matronly. Her musicality cannot be questioned but where is La chulapona’s elan and joie de vivre? Presumably poured out with the final rinse leaving behind an excess of starch. She fares rather better in the Paloma’s Entrance Song from El barberillo de Lavapiés but still lacks the lightness of touch needed to convey the character skipping gaily from street to street. Leticia Rodríguez experiences some problems with both intonation and articulation – the Doña Mariquita pasodoble almost defeats her, even at this slowish tempo. My biggest disappointments were the Pasacalle de los chisperos and the Pasacalle de las mantillas (both described in the playlist as pasodobles). Rodriguez just doesn’t cut the mustard, coming nowhere near Lorengar’s or Berganza’s classic interpretations.

Plácido DomingoDomingo’s contributions saddened me. While neither vocal beauty or strength can be expected to endure ad infinitum, this is a voice which is showing its age. Strained intonation and a pronounced wobble detract seriously from the beauty of the music. By the middle of “Amor, vida de mi vida”, a personal showstopper-favourite, I couldn’t help thinking that this operatic giant’s singing days cannot be anything but numbered. The sweeping melody and emotional passion of his performance of the same romanza from Maravilla under Moreno-Buendia (HMV) is to be cherished; this one should be consigned to the recycling bin and forgotten. I was almost moved to tears: but they were tears of regret. Parallels might be drawn with Alfredo Kraus’s last performances, when the man struggling his way through romanzas that had been in his blood for countless years was finally unable to do them justice. Let us hope that Domingo knows when to bow out before history repeats itself.

The supporting artistes are given little to do, particularly Azucena López whose sole contribution is as the Marquesita in the quartet from El barberillo... in which (thankfully) she helps Navarro and Gerardo López to drown out Ferrer. Enrique R. del Portal and Rodríguez join forces in the flirtatious Umbrella Mazurka from El año pasado por agua. Although not perfect, this is one of the more successful numbers in the collection.

Felix Redondo’s spirited chorus play a significant role in proceedings but the sound is a little distant and I kept having to reach for the libretto to check the lyrics being sung. The orchestral playing is fresh and clean, but under veteran Miguel Roa’s cautious direction they are never allowed to build up a head of steam. His tempi consistently drag the music to a walking pace when it should breathe life and run. For example, instead of strutting elegantly to the bullring in their mantillas, the mujeres of El último romántico sound as if they’re staggering there on zimmer frames. I detect a momentary shift into second gear when the chorus repeat the familiar refrain “Voy con mi mantilla a los toros” as if orchestra and chorus want to get a move-on. Sad to say Roa has them back in first gear within 3 beats. Overall there is no sparkle, energy or Iberian fire – all non-negotiable ingredients of a satisfying zarzuela performance. A friend of mine who heard them assumed that both orchestra and conductor were non-Spaniards, so pedestrian is their interpretation.

I regret having been so negative, but I feel that this was a wasted opportunity. Completists and enthusiasts will want to add Viva Madrid to their collections, if only for the modern sound and less run-of-the-mill items. As a testament to Plácido Domingo’s achievements in the genre it does nothing but harm. This is a CD which I shall dip into, but not one I shall settle down to hear in its entirety. On the positive side, at least we know that DG is still prepared to fund zarzuela recordings. Long may they continue to do so.

© Ian Brown 2011

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17 November 2011