In zarzuela land, we are living in an Age of Bronze. There’s been virtually nothing new created since the last gleanings of Torroba and Sorozábal in the 1950’s, over half a century ago, and it’s no good deluding ourselves that a renaissance is just around the corner. In an Age of Bronze, the only option is exhumation. Digging up lost treasures is perhaps a poor substitute for fashioning our own, but zarzuela has been fortunate in two respects: not only is there a wealth of buried treasure out there, but the Spanish Government has been far-sighted enough to invest heavily in academic and musical personnel to do not only the gold-digging, but also the heavy spade work of practical performing editions to get that theatrical gold back into circulation.
Things are different now. There’s no money left. And while great archaeology has been done on what the professors view as the Isabeline Golden Age of 19th century zarzuela, the titans of mid-20th century zarzuela – notably Luna, Vives and Alonso – have been neglected. Sure, a handful of their ‘classics’ have survived and prospered, and even appeared in handsome new performing editions. But there’s been no rush to fund for them the exploratory expeditions that have put the lesser-known creations of Barbieri, Gaztambide or Arrieta back on the map. The Silver Age masters must fend for themselves.
Pablo Sorozábal has fended better than his peers, and for several good reasons. In the 1940’s and 50’s he did not have the level of official support given to certain of his colleagues, and – morally and aesthetically – he is owed a national debt. His music is pungent and highly personal, and has a growing fan base worldwide. Most crucially, the intellectual and emotional vitality of his work has attracted the wider theatrical world, beyond the customary confines of the lyric stage. So following the revelatory Teatro Español series of Sorozábal productions, it’s no great surprise to see yet another of his forgotten zarzuelas brought back to the stage. Great credit is nevertheless due to the theatrical co-operative – Arriaga in Bilbao, Campoamor in Oviedo, Maestranza in Seville, Canals in Madrid – which last year mounted the first professional revival of Entre Sevilla y Triana, Sorozábal’s 1950 two-act sainete which did for Seville very much what La del manojo de rosas had done for Madrid a generation earlier. If the two zarzuelas have plenty in common, the 1950 Andalusian model was in no way simply an epigone of an earlier, acclaimed masterwork. Where has it been all these years?
I’ve now been able to review an archive video of the full Teatro Arriaga production, well directed for the small screen, and posted last week on YouTube. There’s a detailed description of the zarzuela and its history here with full song texts, so all I need to add is that Entre Sevilla y Triana turns out to be fully worthy of a place amongst Sorozábal’s greatest pre- and post-war creations. The new production is lavish and lovely, featuring magic-realist designs from Ricardo Sánchez-Cuerda which gorgeously evoke the miseries and splendours of 1950’s Triana and dockland Seville. The prismatic use of colour for the Triana street-corner where much of the action unfolds is breathtakingly beautiful. Curro Carreres, unusually conservative amongst current directors, chose to stick very much to the letter as well as the spirit of most of the stage locations and directions, the only major exception being to give the diverse and somewhat sectional action of the final scene a more cinematic fluidity – a decision which works well. In particular, he does full justice to Sorozábal’s imaginative Act One segue between Triana street and Seville dock, in a powerful transformation as Olden’s steamboat docks before our eyes. This is the kind of theatrical trick to thrill anyone from eight to eighty.
If some of Carreres’s detailed direction of the principals was sometimes conservative in the bad old way, with a handful of sloppy hiatuses and timings out of joint, that may have been addressed in the Seville revival a couple of months ago. Antonio Perea’s choreography was anything but sloppy: it’s refreshing to find a zarzuela production where the dance element adds to the drama rather than having to be merely endured as a necessary evil. Even more refreshing to find a choreographer who grasps flamenco elements beyond mere tourist cliché. In an interpolated dance intermedio between the final two scenes Perea does just that: two dancers mirror one another’s gyrations and eventually merge, in a visual analogue to the sexual rivalries of the plot both apt and poetic.
The flamenco accretions, led by cantaor Jesús Méndez both here and in an extended Cruz de Mayo festival scene work well. They take the hint from Sorozábal’s omnipresent guitar and gypsy turns of phrase, and do it within the framework of the story. All this is guyed to entertaining effect by the slim-framed and wasp-waisted Angel Garó, whose camp, tauromachial-flamenco reelings and writhings enliven the zany comedy chances which writers and composers gave to Angeliyo – this was a nicely edgy take on an archetypal tenor cómico routine. Equally lithe, neat almost to the point of anorexia, is José Julián Frontal’s extremely well sung, self-absorbed Fernando; whilst all the women are both physically and emotionally voluptuous - no sexual stereotypes here! Carmen Solis triumphs as Reyes, a heroine beyond the mere nominal convention. The dramatic treatment of this single mother’s strong-minded independence is the most surprising aspect of the libretto, and it is reflected in the nobly vernacular romanza Sorozábal wrote for her: Solis is equally convincing as actor and singer. On video at least, I could have done with feeling a stronger sexual tension between her and Frontal, but that may have been a side-effect of the epicurean narcissism with which her baritone chose to portray Fernando. Certainly self-centredness, action in a mist, motivates his tenor rival in the plot: Andeka Gorrotxategi got José María’s sultry sulkiness right, and made good use of the marvellous chance Sorozábal gives the character in his well-known last scene romanza, which garnered merited applause.
The composer’s wife Enriqueta Serrano apparently stole the original show as Reyes’ scatty cousin Micaela. María José Suarez grabs her opportunities well, leading the flamboyant sevillanas and sexy ‘naval pasodoble’ with aplomb, and putting over her satirical little number castigating modern female ways (expressing, one suspects, the dyspepsia of the three middle-aged men who created her more than the character’s own ideas!) with charm and point. Gurutze Beitia’s spunky Señá Patro made more impact than the male character actors – this really is a distaff-led show. With good choral work, great dancing, and first class playing from the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra under a conductor (Manuel Coves) who got tempi and accent spot on, this experience is a superlative treat, and altogether the Arriaga’s most significant zarzuela achievement so far. I urge everyone who’s interested to take full advantage of the YouTube video while it’s out there.
© Christopher Webber 2013