El barbero de Sevilla + Bohemios Teatro de la Zarzuela (Madrid 2007) ( Jesus Alcantara)
Javier Galán leads the Coro de bohemios

Texts • Guillermo Perrín & Miguel de Palacios
El barbero de Sevilla / Bohemios
Music • Gerónimo Giménez & Manuel Nieto / Amadeu Vives

Teatro de la Zarzuela
(4 March 2007)

Christopher Webber

An “operatic” double-header

Zarzuela may be Opera’s little sister, but her behaviour towards her elder sibling is not always respectful. Sometimes it borders on cheek, manifest in musical parody – or, as in El dúo de La africana, affectionate send-up of the shenanigans associated with the form Dr Johnson infamously defined as “an exotic and irrational entertainment”.

El barbero de Sevilla has nothing to do with Rossini’s matter, everything to do with backstage brouhaha surrounding a provincial production of his famous masterpiece. Elena wants to be a singer, despite her father’s moral objections. Her mother and music teacher take advantage of Don Nicolás’ absence to thrust her into the limelight as Rosina in a pick-up production of the Rossini opera in Burgos, whence her father has decamped to enjoy a liaison with his mistress, who is (you guessed it) an established diva rehearsing in the same theatre. In a dressing–room climax fast, furious and suggestive enough for Feydeau, Elena’s mother discovers the truth, but decides to forego vengeance, at least long enough for Elena to enjoy her moment of triumph.

Perrín and Palacios’ well-crafted fin-de-siecle sainete is neatly characterised and perfectly paced. Whilst much of the music seems semi-detached, that cannot be said of the impressively large-scale climactic concertante, which involves all the characters, and manages to have its cake and eat it by guying “stand and sing” operatic convention at the same time as generating real feeling. Bravo Nieto! (or Giménez?) Elegantly designed and staged, the sainete is graced by impressive performances all round. Charo Reina’s dominatrix-matriarch shades the acting honours. The vocal palm is shared by Milagros Martín’s warmly effusive rival diva, and Carmen González’s pert Elena. As a vocal warm-up before going onstage as Rosina, she sings the ever-popular Polonesa “Me llaman la primorosa”, thrown off with the accomplished artistry we’ve come to expect from González, who triumphs despite some miscalculated stage business involving travesty maids, triumphal arches and light bulbs suggestive of dressing room mirrors. Exotic and irrational indeed, and oddly out of kilter with the clean lines of the rest.

El barbero de Sevilla - Concertante ( Jesus Alcantara)
El barbero de Sevilla - Concertante

It was a very smart idea to couple this under-exposed, quintessentially zarzueloid ray of sunshine with the classic Bohemios, where the two male leads are perfunctorily engaged in writing one of those exotic and irrational entertainments, and which similarly concludes in an theatrical setting – here the grandiose Paris Opéra-Comique. But whereas in the little farce it’s Perrín and Palacios’ text which drives the drama, here their slice of Henri Murger’s romantic, urban Scènes de la Vie de Bohème merely provides the flimsy pretext for a score which has haunted listeners ever since its 1904 premiere. This was my first live Bohemios, and my first surprise was to find how rarely comparison with Puccini’s great operatic masterpiece comes to mind, despite the common literary source  – Vives sketches his own, very personal romance with exquisite, delicate brushstrokes. My second was to discover that despite its Parisian ambience and feather-light drama, Bohemios is such a substantial work, thanks to its finely integrated, sweet yet serious score.

Bohemios (Final Scene) [ Jesus Alcantara]

The new production effortlessly captures the serious as well as the sweet. Pep Durán’s nocturnal, Quartier Latin settings complement Josep Maria Mestres’ thoughtful production, with gas lamps casting a faintly sinister opalescence. The existential treatment of the Opéra-Comique concert-party, with the characters wandering seemingly lost in their own worlds until the final, mass flurry, is especially bold and effective. Comedy is gently subdued, and in Enrique Ruiz del Portal’s perfectly gauged performance the writer Víctor’s mock-suicide seems for a moment only a hair’s breadth away from reality.

As with the curtain-raiser, we’re treated to luxury casting with Javier Galán, no less, taking the tiny but crucial solo role in the Chorus of Bohemians which is the work’s most celebrated (and most Spanish!) vocal number. Ángel Rodríguez is an effective Roberto, his vocal delicacy touchingly counterpointing his outsize physical gaucheness. Carmen González is again better than merely correct as his beloved singer-muse, and Pedro Miguel Martínez turns in a subtle reading of the effusive opera buff Girard, never once overstepping the camp-comedic mark. The only disappointment was the great orchestral intermedio, shifted to the first scene change, curiously under-energised by Miguel Roa and none too well played either. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine Vives’ masterly vignette better served – La Ópera had better look to her laurels. Certainly I’d urge anyone inclined to dismiss zarzuela as lacking artistic credibility to sample the sweet seriousness of this magical one-acter.

© Christopher Webber 2007

Cast: El barbero de Sevilla – Charo Reina (Doña Casimira); Miguel López Galindo (Bataglia); Carmen González (Elena); Luis Perezagua (Don Nicolás); Enrique Ruiz del Portal (Sánchez); Marco Moncloa (Martín); Milagros Martín (La Roldán); Jesús Ortega (Pérez); Iván Nieto–Balboa (López). Bohemios – Ángel Rodríguez (Roberto); Enrique Ruiz del Portal (Víctor); Carmen González (Cossette); Karmelo Peña (Marcelo); Resu Morales (Pelagia); Pedro Miguel Martínez (Girard); Ana María Fernández (Juana); Begoña Álvarez (Cecilia); Javier Galán (Un bohemio). Josep Maria Mestres (d.); Pep Durán (design); Nina Pawlowsky (costumes); Juanjo Llorens (lighting); Montse Colomé (choreography); Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela (d. Antonio Fauró); Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Miguel Roa (c.)

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