Tomás Barrera (1870-1938) is the archetypical example of a late 19th century Hispanic composer whose creative activity was fundamentally tied to the theatre, which in Spain at the turn of the century meant to the world of zarzuela. Given this there is nothing surprising about the oblivion into which his name and work has fallen, in common with many other composers and librettists. The rift opened in Spain by the civil war changed zarzuela from a living to a historical form, and its history will come to be written through only a selection of names - not necessarily the major ones - implying the disappearance of many others. We need not glance back very far to revise that history, adding footnotes by hearing essentially unknown works by celebrated composers, or more importantly the works of completely forgotten ones. That is the case with Tomás Barrera.
In March 2003 Barrera's birthplace (La Solana, in Castilla-La Mancha) paid tribute to its illustrious son by inaugurating a theatre bearing his name. For this momentous occasion the brilliant Ópera Cómica de Madrid double bill was conceived, which has now been remounted within the framework of the lyric season of the Teatro Villamarta in Jerez de la Frontera (Andalusia). [Ed. and since then at Móstoles, Madrid.] The programme revives two género chico zarzuelas by Tomás Barrera. Both of these were collaborations with another musician: in Emigrantes Barrera shared the billing with Rafael Calleja (1870-1938), and in the case of La señora capitana his collaborator was Quinito Valverde (1875-1918). The librettists were the very popular José Jackson Veyán for La señora capitana and the younger, less familiar Pablo Cases for Emigrantes.
These pieces have little in common besides one composer and the one-act format. If in La señora capitana we discover with pleasure a delicious example of self-assured género chico in the line of the best comic pieces of Chueca, Chapí or Fernández Caballero, in Emigrantes we are surprised by an impressively serious sub-genre of powerful dramatic impact, evoking intense feelings and imbued with a rare sense of social criticism.
Here the music is more at the service of creating the ambience and transmitting the message. The romanza "Adiós Granada", which this production puts into the mouth of the character of Tordiyo, is the only example of Barrera's work that has lasted down to today in many minds, and it produces a real lump in the throat through the emotions with which it is freighted. The fine delivery of Juan Manuel Cifuentes only added to its impact.
Is is hard nevertheless to extract from these two zarzuelas a definite idea of the creative personality of Barrera (let alone Calleja or Valverde Jnr.) They contain some clues which with the future exposure of other pieces by these musicians may enrich our understanding of their work. Still, there's no denying that these composers were writing for a specific market - that of the género chico in the first decade of the 20th century, already in decline - that demanded conformity in stage settings and musical conventions to guarantee success. Though Emigrantes departs from the norm of light comedy, it is not unique - there is a distinct group of such serious works with social content.
The plot of Emigrantes is simple but stirring: a merchant ship has left Cadiz for Havana giving passage to some Spanish emigrants who are going to America to seek better fortune in the face of the poor prospects offered by Spain. Thus it tells a story not the less dramatic for being a commonplace of its time. The work recreates the emotions aroused in the hearts of these men and women who will never return, and of those who are observing them pass through the boat as they have seen so many others. It is inevitable to feel touched by a history of that "suffering Spain" now conversely the opulent receiver of emigrants coming from much poorer countries.
La señora capitana ("The Captain's Wife") tells the story of the love between a general's daughter and an officer of humble origin in the barracks where she lives. The girl's mother opposes her daughter's wishes, trying to marry her off to a rich swell who is in fact a nobody. Through the intrigues of the captain's wife, a likeable go-between matchlessly played by national institution Milagros Martín, they are able to uncover the impostor, allowing the love story to conclude happily.
The set for Emigrantes has impressive visual power: it richly recreates, coolly stylised, a ship on the high seas in the middle of the night. As if we were sailing in parallel we can follow all the character in their perambulations around the ship's decks. Intelligent lighting helps define that uncertain territory, the space suspended between the barren land of departure and the promised land of arrival. The stage set for La señora capitana is much more conventional although solidly effective. Here what's needed is to provide a suitable frame for an amusing story where comic verve and the musicality of the performers are paramount. The costuming for both works is very effective, that for the more affluent La señora capitana being specially worthy of praise. The simplicity of stage movement in Barrera and Valverde's skit makes the lighting here comparatively restrained, though none the less effective for that.
The performers in La señora capitana were specially applauded since the work's stage opulence and melodiousness made it the more inviting. With Emigrantes the audience was caught unawares by the brevity of the work, and its enthusiasm for its beauties and fine staging was surprisingly muted. Without doubt Juan Manuel Cifuentes and Salvador Baladez, charged with the moments of greatest vocal display in Emigrantes (the aforementioned romanza and the zortzico respectively) won the loudest plaudits.
Juan Manuel Cifuentes in the congenial role of the orderly Rubiales made much of his appearances - specially joyous was the dúo with la capitana where she teaches him with great elegance to handle his gun. The rest of the company hit great heights, specially honourable musical mention going to the men's chorus. An augmented Madrid Ensemble (sufficiently ample to be able to play both works in their original orchestration) gave both scores well under the experienced baton of Luis Remartínez, who in La señora capitana managed to draw from them lovely playing of brilliance and colour.
Both works were staged by a group of highly talented artists demonstrating an obvious love of Spanish music theatre. Ópera Cómica de Madrid is always a guarantee of interpretative quality, inventive staging and respectful treatment of text and music. This alone would be enough to give satisfaction, but if in addition there is something that characterizes the projects of Francisco Matilla it is his eye to our unsung musical past: his disinterment of totally forgotten works most prominently marks out the successful path of this musical company.
One interesting historical point: La señora capitana is tied by history to the birth of the Society of Spanish Authors, today's SGAE. Both Barrera and Valverde Jnr. - like Calleja - were committed to the project led by Ruperto Chapí and Sinesio Delgado. Through the strategy of signing over the scores doubly, they registered them both with the tyrannical Florencio Fiscowich and with the newborn S.A.E. The income derived from the successes of La señora capitana and El género ínfimo (1901, also by Barrera and Valverde) were decisive in helping the Society arm itself to start dealing decisively with the theatre-musician impresarios at the time who chose to programme these works. This pacific capitana therefore became an effective weapon helping to buttress the rights of the musicians and librettists so unjustly exploited up until that time.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2003
lírico en prosa y verso. Music: Tomás Barrera y Rafael
Calleja. Libretto: Pablo Cases. Cast: Juan Manuel Cifuentes
(Tordiyo); Aurora Frías (Loliya); Francisco Matilla (Bermejo); Paco
Lahoz (Arturo); Salvador Baladez (un vascongado); Gonzalo Terán