Alpha Classics

Coronis (Alpha Classics)

zarzuela in two acts

Sébastian Durón

reviewed by
Christopher Webber

Coronis, Durón
Ana Quintans (Coronis), Isabelle Druet (Tritón), Anthéa Pichanick (Menandro), Victoire Bunel (Sirene), Marielou Jacquard (Apolo), Caroline Meng (Neptuno), Brenda Poupard (Iris), Cyril Auvity (Proteo), Olivier Fichet (Un Cantante del Coro), Le Poème Harmonique c. Vincent Dumestre. Alpha Classics ALPHA788 (Two CDs)

[recorded Salle Colonne, Paris, April 2021]

Alpha Classics [2-CD, ALPHA788, 99:08]

The recent success of Sébastian Durón’s Coronis at Paris’s Opéra-Comique has to be one of zarzuela’s most unexpected triumphs. To turn an unknown zarzuela barroca into a smash hit anywhere would be remarkable, but to manage the trick on one of the world’s most prestigious lyric stages is little short of astonishing. No praise can be too great for Raúl Angulo Díaz, whose energies, intelligence and enthusiasm have been focused on this forgotten masterwork for several years. His book detailing its authorship, history and contents Coronis. Una zarzuela en tiempos de guerra (Ars Hispana, 2018) is required reading, but his primary focus has been to get this outstanding work seen and heard by the wider world. He has succeeded where Spain’s state-funded battalions have failed.

With the collaboration of Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique, Coronis was first seen at Théâtre de Caen in December 2019. This Alpha Classics recording followed, made at Salle Colonne in Paris during April 2021, and it was released in time for last month’s stage run at the Opéra-Comique, where Omar Porras won widespread acclaim for his lively, witty and colourful production, played without a break between the zarzuela’s two jornadas, or acts.

Coronis (c. Theatre de Caen)

The first question is, what are we hearing? Coronis is something of a mystery. As its manuscript at the Spanish National Library (M/1339) lacks the title page, we don’t know for certain the names of the composer and writer, or its precise date of production. The anonymous libretto, in which Apollo and Neptune fight for the favours of the nymph Coronis, allegorises the contemporary conflict between Bourbon and Habsburg claimants for the Spanish crown; while the monster Tritón, part swooning lover, part ravening beast, may represent the scheming Cardinal Portocarrero, whose aim was to regenerate independent Spanish power.

All this proves that Coronis certainly postdates 1700, when the Bourbon Philip V ascended the throne. Based on the identity of the copyist, Raúl Angulo concludes that it cannot have been written after 1713, which leaves a pretty large window for its performance. Internal evidence points very strongly indeed (near enough 100%) to Durón’s having written the score, and it is suggested that the libretto may have been the work of two writers, with the celebrated José de Cañizares perhaps responsible for the second jornada.

So much for the history of a work which has lain in obscurity since the early 18th century. One small, intriguing point: the ensemble-finale of the first jornada – the breathtaking seguidillas ‘Cuando en fuego, en aire’ – turns up again, over forty years later, in José de Nebra’s masterly Iphigenia, transformed with a new text into the passionately argumentative dúo for Oreste and Dircea. On the face of it, it seems that Nebra must have had access to Durón’s score: or had this seguidillas become a popular hit? Further research might prove interesting.

Isabelle Drouet and Ana Quintans, c. Theatre de Caen

But I still haven’t quite answered the question, ‘what are we hearing?’. Durón provides a through-written score, Italian in form and style, using the quicksilver mixture of short arias and duets, recitatives and choruses familiar from Cesti or Stradella. Its tone is much more robust, though, with Hispanic dance-rhythms injecting a vein of comedy which sends up the characters deliciously. As Apollo and Neptune rain down fire and flood, the hapless Thracians run around in circles, vainly trying to propitiate the capricious Gods. Meanwhile the abusive and abused monster Tritón is given the most exquisite music, rather as Caliban is given the most lyrical poetry in The Tempest. The result is quintessentially Spanish, mythic comédia, pointed up by the presence of a gracioso (rustic peasant) couple whose marital banter cuts across the catastrophic plot.

Vincent DumestreTo be clear, what we hear is marvellous, joyously conveying Coronis’s passion and humour. We are not, however, hearing the whole zarzuela, for Vincent Dumestre has ‘done a Leppard’ on Durón’s score: although everything is heard in the right order, he makes many wholesale cuts of arias, choruses and recitatives. In particular, the distinctive coplas (strophic songs) which pepper the original have largely been excised. Yet wearing my theatrical rather than musicological hat, I am not too concerned about this, when the through-line of the narrative is unimpaired and the results are so gripping.

I am more concerned about Dumestre’s realisation of the instrumental parts, often left vague in the manuscript. Although castanets (mercifully) are not used to excess, his orchestration does rely a great deal on a rhythmic percussion battery more Spanish American than Royal Court in style. Especially given Alpha Classics’s up-front, rather blatant recording, less rambunctious scoring might have been desirable. Doubtless it was a wow in the theatre. The manuscript has no instrumental music, but Dumestre’s selection of a Corrente italiana (by Juan Cabanilles) as overture, plus an – unassigned – Passacalle and lively Jácara to commence the second jornada are nicely in keeping.

Ana QuintansReaders unfamiliar with zarzuela barroca may be surprised by the almost exclusively female cast. The monarch’s permanent company of young actresses could sing a bit and act a lot, but Dumestre’s seven sopranos excel at both, putting text and music across with equal energy. This emphasis on textual colour must, I feel, have partly accounted for the show’s Parisian success. The warring gods are good, with Caroline Meng’s darkly overbearing Neptuno a splendid foil to Marielou Jacquard’s brighter but no less authoritarian Apolo. Ana Quintans’s Coronis ranges amusingly from dizzy-sweet to petulant, while Isabelle Druet (as the beastly Tritón) uses her plangent mezzo-soprano to moving effect.

The classiest singing of all comes from the sole principal male, Cyril Auvity as the much-mocked, thrice-woeful old seer Proteo, here rather young-sounding. The graciosos are played with verve by Anthéa Pichanick (a stuttering Menandro, in the old Cavalli tradition) and Victoire Bunel, whose lighter Sirene gives better than she gets. I particularly liked Brenda Poupard’s deux ex machina, Iris, who shimmies down from the clouds to the strains of an oddly lilting peteneras/guajiras. The role would surely have been doubled originally with Tritón, but reserving Poupard’s fresh tones for the action’s climax works well.

Having expressed reservations about Alpha Classics somewhat claustrophobic sound, I must add that I’ve nothing but praise for their expansively intelligent presentation, which includes the adapted libretto with translations into French and English, plus an authoritative introduction by Raúl Angulo Díaz. As the ultimate founder of this particular feast, perhaps he deserves as big a crown for this revelatory Coronis as do the conductor, band, cast – and that master composer, Sébastian Durón.

© Christopher Webber and, 2022

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