On February 28th next year, a zarzuela about which little or nothing is remembered will be staged at Madrid’s Teatros del Canal: La malquerida, by Manuel Penella. It was first seen on April 12 1935 at Teatro Victoria in Barcelona, and was the last zarzuela in the vast catalogue of the composer of Las musas latinas. What’s more, as in the case of El gato montés, Curro Gallardo and Don Gil de Alcalá, Penella himself was responsible for writing the libretto of this lyrical drama in three acts which, as may be guessed, is based on the original drama of the same name by Jacinto Benavente.
When in the 1930’s Penella decided to compose a musical adaptation of Benavente, the play was already a firmly-established repertory piece known to the great majority of theatregoers. La malquerida had been premiered by the company of Maria Guerrero and Fernando Díaz de Mendoza more than two decades earlier, in 1913; since which time Benavente had been awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize for Literature. Penella therefore must have seen it as a safe bet, but precisely because it is a ‘sacred text’ his work as librettist had to be limited to shortening scenes and creating opportunities for the introduction of the musical numbers. His work was to be blessed by Benavente himself, who attended the premiere of the zarzuela and who shared equally in the royalties earned by the adaptation.
The drama rural – wild, exciting and direct – was thus transformed into a vibrant, (non-regional) rural zarzuela which relates to such contemporary pieces as El cantar del arriero by Díaz Giles, Sol en la cumbre by Sorozábal or Guerrero’s El ama. It is interesting to see how Penella here pays obeisance to some commonplaces of the lyric genre which don’t exist in the play – such as the inevitable ‘comedy pair’, popular dance, and of course the presence of a chorus. The end result was a dramatic zarzuela with moments of high lyrical intensity, balanced by other more conventional – though excellent – numbers for the comedians and chorus. I must mention the serranilla sung by Esteban with the chorus; his duet with Raimunda; her Puccinian prayer; and the delicious song for the comic tiple – who also in the third act, incidentally, sings an elegant pasacalle with her lover.
As in El gato montés, and as so often since the time of Tomás Bretón’s La Dolores, in La malquerida we find a popular song that pervades the whole score, one was already present (without music) in Benavente’s original. This song appears at the work’s most dramatic moments, and fuses together all the raw harshness of the incestuous drama between Raimunda, Esteban and Acacia:
With its fourteen numbers – not very extensive, but theatrically effective – and the undeniable quality of the text, today we may see the musical adaptation of La malquerida as more than an example of the fashion for rural zarzuela. For us it may be taken as an example of modernity in Penella the composer, who managed to breathe new life into a previously-successful theatrical text in the way that, just eight years later, Oscar Hammerstein II did when turning Green Grow the Lilacs and Liliom into Oklahoma! and Carousel, or as in 1908 Rudolf Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson did in turning George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man into The Chocolate Soldier for Oscar Straus.
After its first night in the spring of 1935 ( “the most extraordinary seen in Barcelona for years”, according to the critic of El sol) La malquerida embarked on a short tour which took in several Levantine provinces, with the same company as at the Victoria, headed by Pablo Gorgé and Matilde Martín. At the outbreak of the Civil War, as we know, Penella took his company to Argentina and thence to Mexico, where (we may suppose) the zarzuela would have been staged for the last time.
The production prepared by Emilio López for this revival at Teatros del Canal, in co-production with Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, takes us precisely to Mexico’s Cárdenas del Río, where Penella died aged only fifty-eight in 1939. Ten years later the legendary director Emilio Fernández made an important film adaptation in peasant-drama style starring Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz. As we can read on the Canal website, the stage director will be setting the zarzuela in a film studio of that period, with a nod to the country where Benavente’s La malquerida has once again become popular, following its huge success adapted into a soap opera during 2014.
© Enrique Mejías García 2016
Musical numbers of La malquerida*
* For his version of La malquerida, Emilio López will add a baritone romanza