‘I found him somewhat aged, somewhat sad, and I thought how much his morale had suffered during the civil war (through which he stayed in Madrid), this man so kind and sensitive.’ Thus – in his biography of Pablo Luna – Ángel Sagardía relates the chance meeting he had with the composer on the streets of Madrid, shortly after the civil war ended. For an artist used to creating dream and fantasy worlds, it must have been very hard to live surrounded by the conditions of material and (above all) spiritual devastation produced by three, endless years of war. So it is not surprising that the strategy employed by the Aragonese composer to try to forget all that desolation, was to concentrate all the harder on his work.
Luna did not stop writing during the war years, and was also one of the few composers continuing to perform in besieged Madrid. At least two new works emerged in those years: La gracia de Gracia o Por tu cara bonita in 1938, and Cocktail o Una copla hecha mujer the following year, shortly before the fall of Madrid. And after the war ended later in 1939, came three more premieres. It is clear that work was Luna’s invaluable spiritual consolation. He also spent time in that final year composing Las Calatravas, the work that Teatro de la Zarzuela has just had the courage to revive. Though its premiere was postponed until 1941 (September 12, at Teatro Alcázar), the work was practically finished by the end of the fighting.
The need to rise above the miseries of the time by seeking refuge in the evocation of an idealized past, embellished by fantasy and reverie, is central to Las Calatravas, a zarzuela in three acts with a libretto by Federico Romero and José Tellaeche, who locate the action in romantic Madrid, with a syrupy decadence which Luna manages to sublimate, thanks to a splendid score with a highly cultivated aesthetic, in zarzuela’s post-war style. Almost all the composers who survived the conflict played this card at some point, including Torroba with La Caramba and María Manuela; Guerrero with El canastillo de fresas; Alonso with La zapaterita and La Rumbosa; and Guridi with La condesa de la aguja y el dedal – even a composer as ‘up to date’ as Sorozábal, with Los burladores. Perhaps the reason for this nostalgic pattern can be found in the conjunction of two fundamental factors: the material and emotional instability which marked Spain in that post-war moment, together with the decline of the genre itself, eclipsed by the emergent splendour of the ‘spectacular’.
In Las Calatravas we are faced with a work of an extraordinary kind, in which Pablo Luna successfully channelled all his exuberant inspiration through the technical and musical wisdom of almost forty years, during which he had been aware of new trends – not only because of his own restlessness as an artist, but also because of his fruitful work as a conductor and theatre director. The score is characterized by a perfect symbiosis between ‘imported’ music with the evident influence of international operetta (the second act is typical of this, with its succession of numbers such as the rigaudon, march, can-can and waltz) together with more typically Hispanic forms (Andalusian sonorities, flamenco vocalizations, rhythms of tirana, fandango and bulerías). Luna manages to harmonise this stylistic mix through exquisite orchestrations, whose refined and precise lines draw on the neo-classical flavour of other more-or-less contemporary composers, such as Rodrigo, Torroba and Bacarisse.
Through this purity of orchestral style and very subtle sense of line, Luna manages to sustain the evocative and dreamy air breathed by the entire work. However, the Aragonese composer gives us an unpleasant nudge at the end, to ensure that the dream dies with the performance, that reality – whether of war or pandemic – lingers after the last chord. After the triumph of love in the final quartet, the voices and orchestra fade in a diminuendo that seems to establish peaceful calm, descending into an almost tangible silence as the curtain slowly falls. But suddenly comes an abrupt final chord, brutally jolting us out of the dream and bringing us face to face again with waking reality.
Luna also makes good use of melodic motifs (hardly leitmotifs in the strict sense, but recurring themes) to create dramatic situations or highlight the characters’ moods. For example, the song symbolizing the happy moments of love between Cristina and Carlos Alberto, which features in the soprano’s romanza, reappears in the finale to seal their reconciliation; and above all the ‘love theme’ that cyclically begins and ends the drama – apart from recurring at other points, such as the end of the first act, a true moment of ‘melodrama’ (in its musical meaning of spoken words over music) which confirms Pablo Luna’s stature as a theatre musician. This fragment commences with a limpid and serene oboe melody supposed by harp, of Andalusian cast to highlight the origin of Mariani and Laura. On that lyrical backdrop, Luna dramatically juxtaposes the ‘love theme’ and two melodies taken from Mariani’s first song, where he presents the frustrated youthful passion that has marked his life. Through this combination of elements, the composer somehow conveys to the listener (or viewer) the relationship uniting the pair, their moods and the path before them. It is only a pity that, as this was a concert version, we couldn’t fully enjoy such a heightened moment of music theatre.
Leading this fine revival we were fortunate to have the expert and sensitive baton of Guillermo García Calvo, happily a regular here on Calle Jovellanos, where he is musical director. The conductor treated the work with great care and affection, teasing out all the perfume exhaled by the score through tempi, often relaxed but phrased with supreme delicacy, which served to evoke that dreamy, sublime atmosphere which defines the work. The special orchestral sonority, wistful and sensual through all instrumental families – strings included – was also due to him.
The singers had to battle against inclement vocal writing that makes the highest demands, regularly forcing the performers outside their natural tessitura. This problem was accentuated in the case of the baritone Javier Franco, in the central part of Mariani, who is given three solo numbers and a presence in most of the ensembles. The role is a minefield due to its wide vocal range, its demands above the stave and the stylistic and technical challenges of making sense of a character compounded of passion, popular directness, reflection and melancholy. It is true that his voice has a certain opacity and is not particularly attractive for its timbre or smoothness, but the Galician baritone – always a model of stylistic good taste – brings a praiseworthy courage to the table, even risking higher-pitched options when Luna’s score allows him to shelter in the comfort of his middle voice.
The soprano Miren Urbieta-Vega proved a pleasant surprise as Cristina, her ample, iridescent voice of substance and body, sustained with good vocal technique, allowing her not only to attack high notes with gusto, but also to meet virtuoso demands to diminish her tone with crystalline luminosity – as demonstrated both in her romanza, and at the climax of the second act’s terceto. As Carlos Alberto, the Biscayan tenor Andeka Gorrotxategui, a Teatro de la Zarzuela regular for some years in the most arduous repertoire, due to his vocal strength and bravery, did not seem the most suitable singer for Luna’s evanescent and sinuous musical style, which requires an elegance and grace far removed from his artistic approach.
The supporting players were led by Lola Casariego as Laura, the widowed marchioness and mother to the leading women (a character played in the work’s premiere of the work by that titanic and versatile artist Selica Pérez Carpio), who maintains her artistic skill in verbal delivery, while showing the ravages of time in vocal qualities. Lucía Tavira (Isabel) and Emmanuel Faraldo (Pepe Aleluya) sang well enough without completely rising above the orchestral tide. The chorus was good (the women had more to do than the men) as was the sympathetic Emma Suárez in a narration written by Paco Gámez for the character of Doña Aldonza, a poor relative, naïvely meddling in the lives of the female protagonists.
Given the sad state of the reality around us, we yearn to dream of better worlds: and we are fortunate that the maker of dreams, Pablo Luna, has a follow-up appointment with us in a few weeks, with another zarzuela ideal for the task – Benamor.
© Antonio Díaz-Casanova and zarzuela.net, 2021