What is género ínfimo zarzuela? Some Spanish musicologists have denied it even exists, except as a quick and dirty put-down of género chico’s decline after the Golden Age of the late 19th century. Golden Ages quickly fade, and classics on the scale of La verbena de la paloma, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente and La revoltosa don’t come along too often in theatrical history. Only chance conjunctions of time, place and tradition make them possible. By the turn of the century audiences were hankering after novelty, be it Austro-Hungarian operetta, English musical comedy, or the seductions of the Parisian revue packed with saucy couplets; and there were plenty of talents keen to supply the goods. Younger composers such as Vicente Lleó, Tomás Barrera, and “ Quinito” Valverde began to distance themselves from the older chico world; and when in 1901 the Quintero brothers, writing with Barrera and Valverde for Teatro Apolo, named their new one-act zarzuela El género ínfimo (“Decadent” or “Sick”) they were cocking a snook at nostalgic critics who complained that zarzuela was becoming frivolous, adulterated by foreign styles and drenched in sexual innuendo.
And of course the decadent French were held largely to blame. The survey of ínfimo forms and styles outlined by Ignacio Jassa Haro and Enrique Mejías García in their comprehensive programme article makes it clear that such a genre did exist in the minds of its by no means trivial-minded creators, and that the main external influences on it were indeed the Parisian stage revue and musical couplet. Naturally a mere handful of the hundreds of such pieces churned out after 1900 outlived their brief season. The great exception was Lleó’s La corte de Faraón, still in almost everyone’s top ten zarzuelas; but Vives and Giménez’s La gatita blanca, Quinito Valverde and Torregrosa’s El pobre Valbuena, Serrano’s El trust de los Tenorios (a familiar name, if only for its show-stopping tenor jota “Te quiero. Morena, te quiero”) share musical forms and literary styles – not to mention a prurient preoccupation with sex – which marks them out as género ínfimo.
One of the leading ínfimo composers was Rafael Calleja, whose Las bribonas was a big hit of the 1908 Apolo season. Teatro de la Zarzuela’s revival of this all-but forgotten work is a triumph. We might have expected a tolerably amusing, sexy little divertissement, with Frenchified cuplés for the women and a catchy song or two for the tenor cómico. The show certainly delivers all those, but what’s unexpected is its spectacular scale, the epicurean quality of its music, and most of all the degree to which its light, flippant embrace takes in some subversive social point-making to add political spice to the titillation.
Martínez Viérgol’s plot is slight enough. In the teeth of opposition to “las bribonas” (politely, “adventuresses”) from his religiose wife and her pious fellow beatas, a small-town Mayor gives a travelling revue company licence to perform, in order to pursue a flirtation with its leading lady. Cornered by his wife in Mademoiselle Margherite’s dressing room, the Mayor has “no option” (ahem!) but to disguise himself as a negro, blacked up with golly-wig et. al. to make his escape. All ends convivially with the whole town, beatas and all, attending a Charity Matinee given by the revue company in aid of the local poor.
So far, so shoddy. Even the innuendo is the mildest ooh-la-la slap and tickle, nothing compared to the outrageously filthy double-entendres of La corte de Faraón which so incensed General Franco. But the middle-class, male audience at whom Las bribonas was aimed might have found some aspects more shocking. What’s neat is the way that Viérgol turns the feminine tables, hinting that perhaps it’s the “respectable” beatas who are the true bribonas and vice versa. And the Negro-Mayor’s experience of being molested as a sub-human raree-show by the crowd as he makes his way through the streets – they even force him to sing a catchy cuplé with Latin-American maraca accompaniment – is another subversive piece of role reversal. Deeply shocking too for us moderns. The blackface humour means you wouldn’t be able to stage this show in London or New York today without getting your theatre closed down, or torched. Censorship by social consensus may be more liberal than censorship by secret police, but it’s censorship none the less. Madrid, long may she flourish, loses little sleep about such things.
As ever with zarzuela the music’s the thing, and Calleja’s tunes are super. The solos – a feather-light French “couplet” de la modista, a pastiche Andalusian tientos, the Cuban bufos-style “couplets” del negro for the disguised Mayor – all merit hit status; and the concerted and orchestral numbers are equally good. The mock piety of the coro de beatas scores a palpable hit… middle period Buñuel is not so far away. Story-book pantomime sets, OTT dancing set changes and direction, vibrantly synthetic costumes – everything makes for a vivid, fun experience that in its mild way threatens to pull the rug from under marriage, religion, state authority and assumptions of white supremacy. It’s all a tease, sure, but like all the best teases has more than a grain of truth about it.
Nearly everything about the production and preparation is luxury class. Jesús Castejón is vocally and physically impeccable as Don Higinio the Mayor, and it’s a privilege and pleasure to see the legendary Mary Carmen Ramírez strutting her stuff as his wife, indefatigable generala of the black-craped, self-righteous, aguardiente-swilling and cake-stuffing beatas. Carmen Conesa is only vocally and theatrically under-endowed as the pseudo-French coupletist. We were gratified though, that on the last night she brought her very own, cute and tiny long-haired chihuahua along for the ride. Very well-behaved he was too: as the Japanese would say, kawaii!
It was a hard act to follow. If La revoltosa proved a surprising anti-climax, that was not down to Ramón Torrelledó, whose direction of Chapí’s Preludio, dynamically varied, sweeping and powerful, was the musical star turn of the evening. I’ve rarely heard the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid so effectively fired up. Once the curtain rose, though, that choreographic superfluity which made Las bribonas a joy proved unable to focus the tenement life which Chapí and his librettists paint so richly. It was a mess, albeit a pretty one, the sunset sky filled with swifts, moons and fireworks, the verbena atmosphere of Old Madrid lovingly evoked. Did this Old Madrid ever quite exist, or is it a beautiful, urban pastoral myth? None the less meaningful for that, of course…
Luis Varela (Cándido) has the great actor’s gift of suggesting everything whilst doing nothing, conveying worlds with the tiniest physical flicker. María Rodriguez, a great singer now perhaps entering her Indian Summer, could contemplate such stillness to advantage. She acts at us, far too energetically to make her Mari-Pepa seem anything other than terminally desperate, which is not what the character is about. The negotiation scene with Felipe lacked grace, though the immortal dúo worked its ethereal magic as ever to remind us just why this is a classic. The harmonic sensitivity with which Chapí portrays the mood of two (amongst many) people groping in the dark to grasp they know not what, is intensely touching – and intensely human. Vocal honours went to Josep-Miquel Ramón’s lustrous Felipe, not a great actor, but one who knows at least how to stand straight and still. Manuel Borraz’s confident, accurate and funny Chupitos promises exciting things for his youthful career. Too many of the other characters seemed ciphers, and there was a surplus of balletic subtext on display.
A memorable evening, though for the ínfimo novelty not the chico masterpiece. They did not sit too well together, though I suppose the management were right in thinking that coupling two ínfimo zarzuelas would reduce audience appeal. The same caution was in evidence when they billed the popular Bohemios with the rarely-seen El barbero de Sevilla, where the common “operatic” theme provided only an intellectually plausible link. If you’re mounting as few as four zarzuela bills per annum no doubt you’d be foolish to take too many chances, but isn’t that yet another argument for putting more eggs in the production basket? The Calleja revival proved a major artistic event, and exactly what Teatro de la Zarzuela exists to do, though of course it must continue to renew the established classic repertoire. But whilst the quality is great, the quantity is stiflingly small. More ínfimo pleasures, please!
© Christopher Webber 2007
bribonas, zarzuela in one act and five scenes. Text: Antonio
Martínez Viérgol; Music: Rafael Calleja. Cast:
Secretario – Juan Viadas; Don Higinio – Jesús
Castejón; Alguacil – Fernando Ransanz; Doña Florita –
Mamen Godoy; Doña Angustias – Estrella Blanco; Doña
Milagros – Karmele Aramburu; Doña Desideria – Mary Carmen
Ramírez; Liborio - Cipriano Lodosa; Trini la Jerezana – Johana
Jiménez; Mademoiselle Margherite – Carmen Conesa; Negro Domingo
– Eloy Arenas; Juez Municipal – Miguel Ángel Gallardo;
Médico – Roberto da Silva; Boticario – Nacho Castro;
Veterinario – Paco Torres.
30 July 2007