It’s been a long time coming, but here it is. Teatro de la Zarzuela’s first staging of zarzuela cubana has been rightly saluted as a significant moment in the theatre’s history, and this was certainly the right work to choose. Ernesto Lecuona’s musical world may be the more personal, but Gonzalo Roig’s 1961 expanded revision of Cecilia Valdés (1932) makes it in many ways the representative Cuban zarzuela. Mining rich veins from Cirilo Villaverde’s complex national novel (written progressively between 1839 and 1882), the zarzuela examines Cuban history, art and society. Its white-skinned mulato heroine, daughter of a mixed-race mother and white landowning father, brings together the negro, mestizo and Spanish-creole ingredients in the Havana melting pot, to produce a personal tragedy.
Roig’s score, majestically mingling Afro-Cuban, popular operetta and Spanish zarzuela elements, has long been a favourite on disc – not least thanks to the composer’s own, classic recording with Blanca Varela in the title role. It was a privilege to watch this streaming, direct from Madrid on 7 February, not least to confirm how skilfully Roig and his librettists succeed in plotting a path through the novel’s thick undergrowth, in their astute selection of representative characters and incidents from Villaverde’s epic. Even if Carlos Wagner’s lively and colourful staging only partially quarried Cecilia Valdés’s potential, the production – in one arc like the 1932 original, but using the two-act, 1961 score – did at least suggest the scope of Roig’s achievement.
Let me get my objections out of the way. Updating the action to 1950s Cuba under Batista’s dictatorship (the time of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana) promoted pleasant picture-postcard nostalgia, but undercut the uncomfortable questions of colonialism raised by the 1831-2 original, with its references to the Anglo-Spanish slavery wars and the Cuban separatist movement. Despite Rifail Ajdarpasic’s atmospheric, wooden courtyard-compound, invaded by a dark labyrinth of sugar-cane, the same toning-down afflicted the dark santería scenes, reduced in Nuria Castejón’s choreography to something uncomfortably close to sunny Broadway cliché. I don’t want to overstate the criticism, for the personal tragedy at the drama’s heart was solidly projected, in a conservative style; but for me Wagner’s staging lacked ambition to advance zarzuela as living theatre, serving to cement its reputation as evasive, old-fashioned light entertainment.
On the credit side, there was much to admire in the performances and in Oliver Díaz’s virtuosic musical direction, which succeeded fully in drawing together Roig’s stylistic strands in a dazzling display of rhythmic precision, orchestral colour and melodic generosity. As the white-skinned, mixed-race heroine, unable because of the social gulf – not to mention their sibling relationship – to find fulfilment with her aristocratic Creole lover, Elizabeth Caballero’s Cecilia bestrides the evening like a colossus, singing magnificent and acting bravely within the production’s conventional constraints. Identity politics loom large, from her thrillingly confident entry song (‘Yo soy Cecilia Valdés’) to the heartfelt, defeated lullaby over her baby at the zarzuela’s climax. Condemned to repeat her mother’s history, Caballero’s full-circle reunion with Lilián Pallares’s mentally scarred Charito in the epilogue’s convent-hospital makes a moving conclusion, though the zarzuela’s virgin-and-child ‘apotheosis’ is crudely semaphored here. As her half-brother/lover, the Creole landowner’s son and heir Leonardo, tenor Martín Nusspaumer is outgunned vocally but holds his own theatrically, succeeding best in his scenes with Cristina Faus’s intelligently controlled Isabel (the anti-hero’s wealthy fiancée) and with his coolly pragmatic mother Doña Rosa, acted with outstanding point and poise by Isabel Cámara.
If Homero Pérez-Miranda’s rather treacly baritone didn’t quite succeed in bringing the negro musician José Dolores (Cecilia’s admirer and avenger) fully to life, there was a wealth of excellence in many cameo acting and singing performances – not least Linda Mirabal’s powerfully-projected Dolores Santa Cruz, with her famous ‘Po, po, poó!’ song. A minor character from the novel, in the zarzuela Dolores becomes the vivid representative of anti-black racism and crazy priestess of the island’s wild spirit, a contribution mirrored later by the catchy, bongo-fuelled contradanza of the culminating party scene, led by José Dolores’s caustic clarinet. There above all Roig brings his rough and smooth musical materials together, to brilliant effect … though there’s rather more to that fusion than the production allowed.
Others may differ with me about the success of the staging – which was certainly greeted enthusiastically by the packed stalls – but I think we’d all agree that Teatro de la Zarzuela’s long-overdue presentation of a complete Cuban zarzuela marks a red-letter day for the company. Let’s join together in hoping that Lecuona’s masterly El Cafetal and María la O (one of many Cuban variants on Villaverde’s plot) will soon follow up this pioneering production of Roig’s magnum opus. I am certainly grateful to have seen it.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2020