Home at last!
It’s been in the air for years, regular rumours of revivals whispered aloud before vanishing into the ether. But seeing is believing, and here at last is Teatro de la Zarzuela’s long-awaited revival of Pablo Luna’s ambitious opereta, in all – or nearly all – its glory. Since its 1923 premiere in this very theatre, Benamor’s huge demands as to personnel and stage settings have kept it out of professional hands for many years, unlike the two precursors (El asombro de Damasco and El niño judío) with which it is said to form a loose, ‘oriental trilogy’. In fact, this Persian-Zoroastrian fantasy is different in style from either of its two supposed companion pieces. It is more complex in musical ambition, more daringly contemporary in tone.
Recent research has revealed one reason why, discovering the score’s firm links with Luna’s English operetta The First Kiss, which was first staged (in Harrogate) about four months earlier, on 1 January 1923. Relocating, replotting and expanding El asombro de Damasco to satisfy changed British tastes, he was obliged to write large amounts of brand-new music, a quantity of which found its way into the new Madrid show. This accounts for Benamor’s special perfume, which is very much of its time, with notes of Monckton, Ketèlbey (at the time, the world’s best-selling composer) and London’s hit musicals Chu Chin Chow and Cairo balanced by traces of Lehár, and Luna’s own, unmistakably Spanish rhythmic verve and melodic largesse. This sounds synthetic, and it is: but the composer’s superb technical artistry brings the strands together, to make a satisfying whole, of consistent quality.
Benamor is an outlier in Spanish lyric theatre, not least for an unusual plot device it shares with Offenbach’s one-act operetta L’Île de Tulipatan (1868). Antonio Paso’s and Ricardo González del Toro’s libretto centres on a sibling relationship where – with operetta logic – the girl has been brought up to think she’s a boy, and vice versa. Now ‘Princess’ Benamor must choose a suitor, though she is keener to kiss the harem girls and go out on the razzle; while ‘Sultan’ Darió (who prefers embroidery needles to masculine daggers) finds himself drawn powerfully towards a proud, if rather opaque Spanish caballero. Though the libretto mainly uses this to provide farcical topsy-turvydom, one of the surprises of Benamor is the degree to which – only a few months before Primo de Rivera’s reactionary military coup – it faced audiences with some remarkably open questions about sexual stereotypes and transgender identities.
Does the music dramatize these questions? Yes. There’s a superb terceto of confused emotions in Act 1, for the siblings and the Spaniard, Juan de León, which I’d single out as particularly ear-catching, as Luna’s obbligato solo violin writing weaves an emotional thread into the comedic web. Like its English cousin, Benamor is unusually rich in duets, trios and larger ensembles – nearly all the solo songs have a choral component, too – and many of these are motivated by the libretto’s amorous, gender confusions. The plot dictates that although Benamor and Darió eventually discover their ‘true’ genders, they have to keep them under wraps to the end; so even the two overt ‘love duets’ – one comic (for Benamor and Nitetis), the other romantically passionate (Darió and Juan de León) are dressed all female and all male. The fact that ‘Princess’ Benamor is a ‘trouser role’ for light soprano blurs the gender divides to a Shakespearean degree.
The jaunty, comedy numbers – notably the ‘Paso de Camello’, Luna’s answer to Ketèlbey’s In a Persian Market – go well under José Miguel Pérez-Sierra’s energetic if somewhat blunt direction. If some of Luna’s subtler orchestral poetry is lost in equally blunt playing from the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid, that’s doubtless a result of Covid restrictions on numbers and distancing. This is a grand choral operetta, but although the same restrictions limited the Coro Titular del Teatro de la Zarzuela to a fraction of normal personnel, precision and good diction generally won the battle over the orchestra’s over-hearty contribution. Nuria Castejón’s dance team bolster the on stage numbers and are solidly employed throughout: the score’s most famous highlight, the show-stopping ‘Danza del fuego’, falls to them too, tastefully mapped with sacred aura (and choral climax) blessedly intact. Sadly, its ritualistic vocal introduction is absent – the most regrettable of several cuts, along with the Vizier Abedul’s comic couplets, various verses from strophic songs, and the Act III ‘preludio’, an orchestral version of the baritone’s familiar aria ‘País de sol’.
Enrique Viana’s production partakes of the Good, the Bad – but never the Ugly. Daniel Bianco’s settings, with their sliding lattices and Persian arches, are surprisingly close to the 1923 originals, replacing painted backcloths with equally colourful modern back projections. Is this, I wonder, his olive branch to traditional audiences, or a tongue-in-cheek exercise in post-modernism? No matter: paired with Gabriela Salaverri’s bold, technicolour diaphony of costumes and Albert Faura’s poetic lighting (some of the best I’ve seen at Teatro de la Zarzuela) they cook up an enchanting visual soufflé. The Good is the choreographed, musical-theatre style staging of the musical numbers, fluid and wittily in period. The Bad is Viana’s direction of the dialogue, full of gaps long enough to wage a Persian war and somewhat vaguely staged.
His own pair of panto-style monologue inserts, though related to the operetta and its 1923 premiere (as well as its cross-dressing theme, as he plays first a Madrid pastry-cook, then the pastry-cook’s glam-queen wife) proceeded at snail’s pace. Perhaps you had to be there. He did give us inserts from Rimsky’s Scheherazade and the inevitable opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, though personally I’d rather have had some of Luna’s missing Also Sprach Zarzuela. Otherwise the adaptation is conservative, with nothing to frighten the horses of tradition, and altogether the show’s relaxed geniality yields great pleasure.
Viana also plays the ‘first comedian’ role of Abedul, with unexpectedly quiet, self-absorbed whimsy, rather than the verbal and physical skills we expect in such roles. The rest of the cast are not so outré: Francisco J. Sánchez is a well-projected captain of the Janissaries, Gerardo Bullón and Gerardo López contrast drolly as the ‘butch’ and ‘fem’ suitors for Benamor’s hand (their catchy entry number is deliciously moved by Castejón). Irene Palazón’s lustily forthright Netetis reminds me of a young Amelia Font – easy to bring to mind when the original is also here, breezily strutting her stuff as the royals’ mother, Pantea. How nice to see her back where she belongs. Emilio Sánchez is another blessedly familiar face, precise and characterful as ever, in the role of the slave-trader Babilón. Esther Ruiz, in the acting role of the harem slave Cachemira, provides one of the show’s edgiest moments when breaking away terror-stricken from Princess Benamor’s unexpectedly ardent embraces.
Damián del Castillo looked the part of the adventuring Spanish hidalgo, singing and acting solidly, though failing to dislodge memories of Marcos Redondo’s famous recording of his emotional Spanish romanza, ‘País de sol’ – a number, incidentally, which most probably started life in England as the lusty pirate song in The First Kiss, ‘A buccaneer!’ Vanessa Goikoetxea’s ADHD teenage Benamor exudes testosterone in all the right ways, and her incisive singing matches her energised, over the top characterisation – with almost a hint of castrato in the timbre. The outstanding vocalist on the night was undoubtedly Carol García, whose creamy mezzo-soprano is in demand throughout Europe, for everything from baroque to modern opera. Her gentle presence and touching confusion of identity kept her ‘Sultan’ Darió in the mind long after the curtain fell, and her soaring line in the love duet with del Castillo’s Juan capped her contribution to the evening, as well as the composer’s own.
Where does Benamor rank among Luna’s work? That’s a tough question, if fortunately an unnecessary one. It is his longest and most ambitious completed stage score, bursting at the seams with sunny invention, its stylistic diversity held together by superior artistry in structure, harmony and orchestration. If it doesn’t have a surplus of hit solos, several of the duets are outstanding, and the ‘Danza del fuego’ ranks among his best, quintessentially ‘Spanish’ creations. It would be bliss to have a really complete recording of this fascinating score, but meanwhile we can watch (for a while at least) Madrid’s enjoyable revival. I can think of no better relief from Covid woes than Teatro de la Zarzuela’s colourful show and Luna’s unfailingly optimistic music.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2021