Loss of Nerve and Nebra
at La Zarzuela

Iphigenia en Tracia, Teatro de la Zarzuela Madrid 2016 (photo: c. Javier del Real)

The current production at Teatro de la Zarzuela is marketed as a revival of José de Nebra’s seminal 18th century zarzuela Iphigenia en Tracia. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. Christopher Webber discusses a disturbing trend in theatrical production...

It was greeted here as good news that José de Nebra’s long-forgotten zarzuela Iphigenia was to receive its first modern staging, following Emilio Moreno’s excellent music-only CD issue on the Glossa label. Here, we thought, was a chance to experience this important work where it belongs – on the stage. Yet Pablo L. Rodríguez’s review of Iphigenia en Tracia in El País (16 November 2016) makes it clear that the opportunity has been stupidly squandered. Under the title ‘Nebra resucita enano’ (‘Stunted Nebra revival’) the critic describes a depressing travesty.

Maria Bayo as Iphigenia at Teatro de la Zarzuela 2016 (photo: c. Javier del Real)While admitting that reviving an 18th c. zarzuela “takes a lot of knowledge, but also imagination”, Rodríguez describes the ways in which this seminal work has been butchered. The spoken text has been removed, along with all characters who do not have anything to sing, and the musical score itself has been compressed into an hour and a quarter of “dramatically incomprehensible spectacle”. The critic describes how the zarzuela’s climactic moment, when Iphigenia discovers her brother Orestes and sings her beautiful plea ‘Piedad, señor, piedad’ to King Toante, is rendered incomprehensible by the fact that there is no King Toante to sing to! The show is tricked out with brief narrations from those respectable luminaries Goethe and Euripides, neither of whom have much common ground with Nicolás González Martínez’s elegant and socially diverse original libretto.

The director of this shipwreck is Pablo Viar, but the ultimate responsibility lies not with him, but with the management of Teatro de la Zarzuela, who by condoning (or actively encouraging) such a travesty once again demonstrate that they are either too cowardly to put their foot down, or simply unfitted to the task of safeguarding the genre’s future.

In fairness, let me try to put myself in their shoes (empathy is the name of the game, after all) and articulate the excuses they would probably offer, for turning one of the glories of the Spanish stage into a quick-and-dirty concert in costume:

“The spoken dialogue is outdated”
Yes indeed, but this is one of the problems of all lyric theatre which is not through-written. Pablo Viar would not, I suppose, be encouraged by a major opera company to remove all the dialogue from repertory standards such as The Magic Flute, The Merry Widow, Carmen or Orpheus in the Underworld on that basis, and there is no more reason to remove the spoken element from zarzuela. If you can’t revive a work, then reinvent it by all means. But especially when it is as unfamiliar as Nebra’s zarzuela, never ever reduce it to ‘musical mush’.

The director’s job is to stand up to management, and to make sure either that the original dialogue is performed in a way that communicates to the audience, or to provide an intelligently revised text for acting, true to the stylistic parameters and aesthetic aims of the original. This has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of production style, which can take any direction imaginable. Reducing a stage work to rubble shows lack of confidence in the genre, a lack of integrity, and mind-blowing intellectual laziness.

“We’re living in a visual age”
We are, and an increasingly impoverished one where any intelligent director should see their duty is to use imaginative, cost-effective means to hold an audience’s attention. Yet reactionary productions such as Viar's Iphigenia insult the public’s intelligence (and the public purse) by offering them good food reduced to eye-candy pap. This does not mean that the very considerable budgets allotted to these Teatro de la Zarzuela productions are unwarranted, but that they should be spent first and foremost on personnel, not pretty settings.

Zarzuela and opera are dramatic art before they are spectacle, and you are never going to interest audiences by condescendingly (or fearfully) cutting out any elements which you happen to think may be ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. It shows a failure of nerve, a covert admission that zarzuela is ‘irrelevant’ to modern life, and a cynically shallow approach to theatre itself.

“We haven’t the resources to mount the full zarzuela”
Pablo ViarI had the pleasure of seeing the 2014 Teatro de la Zarzuela’s staging of Chapí’s Curro Vargas (in Oviedo) alongside the then-director Paolo Pinamonti. He vehemently agreed with me that the huge success of the production – which was greeted in Oviedo with a massive standing ovation – was down in large part to the fact that the director Graham Vick had refused to cut the dialogue, on the grounds that if a piece is worth doing, then it’s worth doing what’s written, and using your talents to make it work. The money was spent on a large company, with minimal sets; and the response from the actor-singers, liberated to perform the piece by the lack of focus on frivolous and expensive stage technics, was astonishing.

The irony here is, that Vick's assistant director on Curro Vargas was ... Pablo Viar. He doesn't seem to have learned much from the experience.

“It’s only zarzuela, after all” (sotto voce)
This, I am afraid, is the unspoken thought that lies at the root of the problem. So anything goes? This Iphigenia is not the first time Teatro de la Zarzuela have emasculated zarzuela. Even under the Pinamonti banner, Black, el payaso was reduced to a shell in precisely the same way. Instead of taking up a whole evening, Sorozábal and Serrano Anguita’s punchy satire was shoehorned into half a double bill, without dialogue. This rendered it perfectly pleasant, perfectly safe – and utterly meaningless. If a stage director has no wish to wrestle with the intellectual difficulties of directing zarzuela, they have no business accepting the job in the first place.

Iphigenia en Tracia, Teatro de la Zarzuela Madrid 2016 (photo: c. Javier del Real)

Speaking as a former professional opera director, I can assert that the business nowadays needs everything it has always needed – political skills, imagination, self-confidence, but above all an empathic engagement with the material. Opera cannot these days rely on those indolent, expensive visual solutions which no longer even impress open-mouthed spectators used to CGI film and lavish Broadway musicals. They don’t work. They are dead theatre.

No: spend what little you have on your performers, not on lavish sets and costumes. Hi-tech tricks can no longer be justified in a cash-strapped age. They have become an outmoded substitute for creative engagement with the work, the performance space, and the actor-singers.

This trend of diluting the drama of non-operatic lyric theatre is not confined to Spain, and it takes many forms. Recently the Royal Academy of Music here in London proudly announced that it was going to perform Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld in the original French, but with new English dialogue. The effect of this snobbish and silly operation will be reduce a clever musical satire to an anti-theatrical, bilingual mish-mash signifying nothing. It is an insult to the composer, the performers and the audience, to water down dramatic and satirical possibilities in this way, or any other.

As Pablo Rodríguez concludes in El País, “Teatro de la Zarzuela has lost here a magnificent opportunity to reveal or reinvent the characteristic alternation between speaking and singing that defines this genre”. Quite right. To be fair to Pablo Viar, he is relatively inexperienced, and may not have made the call to promote this butchery. The responsibility lies elsewhere. It is time that the theatre’s management buckled down to the business of doing their job – which is to facilitate the full-scale production of zarzuela with dialogue, not pointless musical concerts in costume.

© Christopher Webber 2016

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