Beauty and the Beast Reversed
When, in Act 3 Scene 2 of La bruja Leonardo cries out “¡cuánto fanatismo!” (“what bigotry!”) we are presented with the crux of what is one of the undisputed summits of 19th century Spanish lyric theatre. La bruja is a zarzuela which speaks to us, above all, about morbid superstition in an angry country two centuries earlier. A society decadent and bewitched, like its King, where the sun had been setting for decades and in which religion provided precious little relief to a people infected with fear of God.
At the time Chapí premiered La bruja in 1887, just 53 years had passed since the abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. Its first audience would have seen a romantic story, depicted in a fanatical country during the reign of Carlos II, but still riddled with references relevant to 19th century Spanish society. In 2002, when Luis Olmos devised the production now revived, he wanted to view the tale of Leonardo and Blanca de Acevedo from a very different perspective: La bruja is also a fairy tale with a happy ending, a Walt Disney film in the style of Beauty and the Beast (1991), but with an exceptional soundtrack.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not Ramos Carrión and Vital Aza offered us this somewhat kiddy-kitsch vision of the plot, and without even raising the desirability or otherwise of this revival (need we even recall the recent production at the new Palau in Valencia?), we should ask why this one has succeeded so well at the Teatro de la Zarzuela – a full thirty shows and counting! The reason has little to do with the staging, which is little better than faceless on the scenic side – veering into bad taste if anything when it comes to the flames or the owl at the castle. The use of traditional cardboard-stone almost amounts to abuse – though I like Fuensanta Morales’s artfully lively choreography, especially the spectacular jota; María Luisa Éngel’s colourful costumes and Juan Gómez’s convincing lighting.
The success of this Bruja is due to the artistic quality gathered together in the music room on Calle Jovellanos. Without exaggeration, this La bruja belongs to José Bros, a tenor whom I like more every time I hear him, and a great favourite with the audience at La Zarzuela. He has the ideal instrument for zarzuela roles such as Leonardo, plus the ability to thrill his public by technical fireworks released within the guidelines of good taste. A real luxury, as tenor and actor, we should expect him to return soon so we can to enjoy – why not? – a good Tempestad. In comparison Albert Montserrat’s Leonardo has proved pale but honest, though enjoyable enough and much applauded by packed houses.
For Blanca de Acevedo, two good witches – Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Ana Ibarra. The latter in particular was distinguished by a superb interpretation of the Second Act dúo, and the cuarteto in the First. Exceptional comedy came from Marta Moreno and Julio Morales – what a good comic tenor! – along with the Rosalías, two lovely creatures called Susana Cordón (getting better) and María Maciá, who returns to La Zarzuela for the first time since her success in Luis Alonso. Last, Fernando Latorre was a more than adequate Inquisitor in his far from easy concertante.
The Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela sounds in general – and not for the first time – somewhat tired and old, opaque in tone and with serious limitations in the upper register. I am pleased to report they’ve advertised open auditions on the Theatre’s website. For its part the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid was at its best under the youthful and ultra-precise direction of José Miguel Pérez-Sierra. The only caveat would be some almost scandalously foul tuning from the brass in the Preludio.
Little more to say about these witches and warlocks. It’s a shame not to be able to report in more detail on some of the alternative cast members – Carmen Serrano’s Blanca, Carlos Moreno’s Leonardo and Carlos Durán’s Tomillo – and I must complain once again about the big mistake that has led to the demise of the publication and sale of those unforgettable programme book-librettos that the Teatro de la Zarzuela has been offering for years. Sometimes men, like crabs, prefer to walk backwards. Let’s turn with an optimistic smile towards the future; it is soon time for La generala…
© Enrique Mejías García
Cast: La Bruja (Blanca de Acevedo) – Nancy Fabiola Herrera¹ / Ana Ibarra² / Carmen Serrano; Rosalía – Susana Cordón¹/María Maciá²; Magdalena – Marta Moreno; La Superiora – Carmen Belloch; Inés – Esther Ruiz; Cándida – Mónica Martínez; Valentina – Olga Castro; Leonardo – José Bros¹ / Carlos Moreno / Albert Montserrat²; Tomillo – Julio Morales / Carlos Durán; El Inquisidor – Fernando Latorre; El Cura – Javier Roldán; Aldeano 1º / Oficial 1º – Ángel Burgos; Aldeano 2º / Oficial 2º – David Martín; Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela (d. Antonio Fauró); Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (c. Miguel Roa / José Miguel Pérez-Sierra); Luis Olmos (d.); Gabriel Carrascal (design); María Luisa Engel (costumes); Juan Gómez - Cornejo A.A.I. ( lighting); Fuensanta Morales (choreography)