Ibs Classical

Ay Amor (Continuo Classics)


music: Charles Colin
text: Etienne Decrept

reviewed by
Christopher Webber

Miren Urbieta-Vega (Maitena), Marifé Nogales (Chaadiñ), Estíbaliz Sánchez (Segadora), Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Domingo), Javier Tomé (Batichta), Alberto Abete (Segador), José Manuel Diaz (Ganich), Fernando Latorre (Piarrés); Sociedad Coral de Bilbao; Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, c. Iker Sánchez Silva

[recorded at Euskalduna Jauregia (Bilbao), September 2020]

IBS Classical [2-CD IBS152021, 95 minutes]

Great oaks from little acorns grow. Quite so, but if early 20th-century efforts to nurture a local forest of national operas didn’t come off, the Basque-language stage works of Usandizaga and Guridi at least amount to a clump of good, sturdy trees. One of the little acorns was Maitena, a ‘Basque lyric pastoral’ in two acts, written by two enthusiastic amateurs from the French Basque province of Labourd. Charles Colin’s simple, folk-opera setting of Etienne Decrept’s Labourdine text was composed in hope of a French production which didn’t materialise. When it was mounted in Bilbao during 1909, with a non-professional cast using (to the librettist’s dismay) Alfredo de Echave’s Spanish translation of the dialogue in tandem with the original Basque sung texts, the opera proved a surprising hit, not least thanks to Eloy Garay’s realistic and colourful stage and costume designs. Multiple revivals followed in Euskadi and South-Western France, as well as Madrid and Mexico, and there was even talk of a London production.

Charles ColinCrucially, Maitena’s popular success led to the swift staging of Usandizaga’s infinitely more developed rural tragedy Mendi Mendiyan, as well as Guridi’s Mirentxu and Intxausti’s Lide ta Ixidor (the Basque Hänsel und Gretel). Over time interest in the little acorn itself naturally waned and died; and this recording – the first of a promised series of Basque opera recordings to be funded by Bilbao Choral Society – is its first flowering for many decades.

Formally, Maitena is an ‘opéra comique’, alternating musical numbers with spoken dialogue; and though IBS Classical’s recording presents the complete score sung in Basque (not ‘extracts’, as at least one online retailer has it), there is no dialogue. Nor do IBS provide a libretto, and though Pello Leiñeina Mendizabal’s liner notes guide us through the work’s inception and performance history, his curt synoptic paragraph fails to mention some important characters. For a forgotten work in an unfamiliar language this is unhelpful; so I’m indebted to Natalie Morel Borotra’s seminal 1993 essay ‘Un opera Labourdin à Bilbao: Maitena, d’Etienne Decrept et Charles Colin’, for her fuller synopsis and much else.

Maitena (Vocal Score, des. Aurelio Arteta)Decrept’s plot is classically simple. Maitena’s wealthy father, the (bass) farmer Piarrés, wishes her to marry Ganich, an upright young (baritone) lad of good peasant stock, but she prefers the dashing (tenor) Pelota-player Domingo, and elopes with him to Argentina. Returning crestfallen after his death to the farm, on route to a servant’s life in Bilbao, Maitena is angrily rejected by her father; but with the aid of her brother Baticha and his wife Chaadiñ, Piarrés softens, and Maitena agrees to marry the long-suffering Ganich. The bitter-sweet narrative, with its themes of young love, economic insecurity and emigration, is at least ‘about something’, though it may have been simply a rural idyll to most middle-class Bilbainians of the time, doubtless responding to folk tunes, colourful sets and ‘authentic’ costumes as the essence of ‘national opera’. Young Basque musicians were not so easily won over, Jesús Guridi’s private dismissal being specially scathing: ‘it is just another perfect poultice, absolutely devoid of artistic value’. In fairness, I must point out that he condescended to conduct the opera himself on several occasions!

Certainly, listeners should not expect Maitena to resemble impassioned verismo or contemporary, Wagnerian opera, any more than it resembles sophisticated zarzuela. Although his father had been a celebrated artist, Colin himself was an amateur of painting, sculpture and music, who worked as Justice of the Peace in his pretty home town of Ciboure – incidentally also the birthplace of Ravel. According to the Bilbao newspaper ‘El Nervión’ in its review of the premiere, ‘he became a composer in little more than a year, who aware of his limitations, wanted above all to transpose into the score the popular songs of Euskal Herri, which deserve to be collected as much as its wonderful landscapes’. Quite so, for the most successful parts of Colin’s score are those strophic songs, duets and choruses which use the distinctive melodies and rhythms of Basque folk music. At times the composer gives way to the naïve, pedestrian pretentions regretted by Guridi; and the simpler his music and orchestral scoring, the greater its charm. In that respect, I’d compare it to Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha rather than Mendi Mendiyan.

Miren Urbieta-VegaConsidering the pandemic difficulties under which it was made, with the reduced, socially-distanced orchestra recorded apart from the singers, IBS’s production is remarkably successful. In the title role, Miren Urbieta-Vega keeps her luxurious, lyric-spinto power on a tight rein, to touching effect, while Mikeldi Atxalandabaso’s pelotista is so clean in attack and diction as to make us regret his early disappearance – their duet ‘Nik dakita?’ is a highlight. Javier Tomé’s lighter tenor Batichta fills the vocal gap in Act 2 with distinction. Bilbao Choral Society makes the most of its comparatively limited opportunities, singing with heady enthusiasm; and under Iker Sánchez Silva’s precise direction the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra make sure that Colin’s overture, miniature Angelus and entr’acte also hit the mark. Above all, despite Maitena’s ‘operatic’ longueurs, it’s the unadorned beauty of Colin’s Basque folk materials which linger pleasantly in the mind and heart.

© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2022

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