English readers may find the notion of a smash hit theatre piece based on the life and music of zarzuela composer Vives a paradox. Amadeu has been playing to sold-out houses at Teatros del Canal, the equivalent in size and scope to London’s National Theatre, and has turned out one of the hottest tickets in town this winter season. It’s a small cast play, with a trio each of actors and singers. Yet (another paradox) it also requires a large chorus and orchestra who are integral to the action.
None of this will be surprising to Spaniards. Catalan actor-playwright Albert Boadella, founder of the Els Joglars theatre company nearly 50 years ago, is used to success. He’s also used to controversy. As a Barcelonan who has increasingly turned sour on Catalan nationalism, a bullfighting aficionado and anti-clerical political activist, Boadella is nothing if not complex. A trilogy of polemical plays dealing with Catalan notables living and dead (Jordi Pujol, Dali, and Josep Pla) proved offensive to both left and right, eventually leading to his decision to leave his home city in 2009 for his current post at the huge, new and prestigious Teatros del Canal complex.
A musical pendant to the Catalan trilogy, Amadeu too contains passionate debate on nationalism. A Barcelona newspaper editor commissions a young journalist and hard rock fan (Jordi) to write an article about this fusty old Catalan composer of whom he’s never even heard. Online research leads Jordi to try to imagine the personality of his subject, who takes the stage and engages with the journo’s Barcelona life and pop culture tastes. Their debate conjures up fantasy scenes evoked by Vives’s music, including large-scale renditions from Bohemios, La generala, Maruxa and Doña Francisquita, as well as some early, sexy género ínfimo pieces and the nationalist songs L’Emigrant and La Balanguera.
By the end Jordi has changed his views on art, life and politics. What is it to be Catalan? What is it to be Spanish? Is it a betrayal to move to Madrid where money and sex are to be had more easily than in Barcelona? What about the dilemma of a cultivated artist who needs to make his way in the world? What price Beethoven in an age of sexy revue and nostalgic zarzuela, or indeed a world of internet, hard rock and headphones?
All this is much more than a framing device. Boadella presents both journalist and composer as club-footed, and Vives also sports a withered hand and humped back somewhat in the manner of a Barcelona Quasimodo. Their linked physical disability comes to symbolise the disabling nature of nationalism through the ages. In the end, they are dancing together. “Yes, I am Catalan”, Boadella tells us through his characters, “but I am also Spanish. And that is more important.” This Castilian epic is not likely to be staged in Barcelona any time soon.
The action is fluid, music and words ebbing and flowing through the course of two hours without interval. Jordi clowns, capers and challenges composer and audience alike. We see the poor working musician as pub pianist, the successful one in rehearsals for Doña Francisquita; but we also see the rich and successful composer whose money buys him love of a sort, despite his crippling physical disability. We witness (most movingly of all) his death, and consider the fading immortality which has seen – according to a real newspaper article reproduced in the programme – Vives’s memory in Barcelona shrink to the point where his tomb is crumbling to dust.
The staging is spectacular, with the main action concentrated in a small circle, the principals backed by a full stage orchestra under Miguel Roa and a chorus who take on a host of different roles, invading the space from time to time as pub crowds, theatre audiences, political mobs and street crowds. The three solo singers (not least the renowned Lola Casariego) sing well, and the musical numbers are mounted imaginatively. But it’s the two towering central performances at the heart which ensure this is one emotional and intellectual journey nobody will forget in a hurry.
Antoni Comas is dazzling as Vives as he plays, dances, sings and shouts us non-stop through the events of his life, club foot, withered hand and all. But to my mind just as remarkable is Raúl Fernández’s Jordi, the journalist whose path from sunny, sharp plebeian insouciance to appreciation of his subject, not just as a Catalan but as a composer for the world. The play is really his – and our – journey.
Despite my own Little Englander inability to follow the subtleties of the dialogue, I was left profoundly moved by Amadeu. It’s not so much the polemics, or even the characters. The play works richly to convey how foolish we are to underprize men such as Vives whose music, at once direct, technically sophisticated and sensual, has the power to touch us with something beautiful and eternal, over and above the cynical hysteria of modern life. And if Sr. Boadella has got me sounding off like some old buffer from the Fundación de la Zarzuela Española, perhaps that’s another paradox to reflect on!
Due to its massive and specialised personnel requirement, Amadeu is unlikely to be revived often or easily. That’s a pity, because it deserves to reach out to an audience wider than the few thousand privileged to see it during its short Madrid run.
© Christopher Webber 2011
16 February 2011