This guy's got class. Real class”
¡Hola chicos! The other day I was trying to earn an honest duro down Latinas way, juicing up the crowd with some rousing political tangos to the strumming of my guitar – yes, brothers and sisters, we are on the march! Down with Felipe VI! Up with the Republic! Down with Flags! Up with Umbrellas! – when my sweet little Italian friend Paolo (who passes round the hat for me when he’s nothing better to do) told me that there was something interesting going on at the tumbledown theatre he runs in up-town Calle Jovellanos. He said I ought to take a look, as they were staging something written by one of his fellow countrymen, some guy called Luigi Boccherini. And what’s more, he said it was a Spanish zarzuela called Clementina!
Now I knew he must be giving me the blunt end of the stick. Not only does Paolo’s theatre avoid performing anything from our wonderful, national lyric genre whenever it can get up something French, or even American; but the idea that an Italian could write a zarzuela is clearly mad. “No es zarzuela!”, I told Paolo, “you must be cracked in the head, my friend.” But he said, not at all: “It’s actually a tragedy that Boccherini only wrote one zarzuela … because it shows he was a composer every bit as good as Mozart. This piece, my dear Wamba, is one of the greatest lyric theatre works of the whole 18th century*”.
And as for the genre, he added, it was every bit as much zarzuela as stuff like Marina and Las golondrinas – and at least it was funny, having a marvellously witty and stylish libretto by the great Ramón de la Cruz. “I find such comparisons with Mozart hyperbolic. But Clementina is well up to any opera by his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Haydn”, a bald-headed English tourist in a white suit chipped in. “It is a sort of Spanish Il matrimonio Segreto, only with much better music than Cimarosa, and a hint of incest.” The English are obsessed with incest, so I didn’t take this too seriously.
But chicos, Paolo had fired my interest – and my gastric juices, having promised me free chocolata y churros if I saw his little show – so I ambled down to Jovellanos. And guess who I ran into outside the theatre? None other than the Jester and the Veiled Lady. Now these two are trouble. Big trouble. You don’t want to go crossing them. More than one itinerant muso has been found down a back alley after crossing one or the other of this pair. Even the grandest conductors shake in their shoes at the sight of them. The Jester was blowing up his pig’s bladder. The pig didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience. The Veiled Lady (nobody knows who or what she really is) was mincing up and down the street, hands on hips, a rose between her teeth, anxious to attract any victim she could. Few men have seen what lies beneath the veil, and lived to tell the story. That one’s poison, I can tell you!
I asked them what was going on inside. They told me I’d missed the show, but that for a few pesetas they’d give me the gen. You don’t say No to the Jester and the Veiled Lady. The Jester, a man of few words – his sharp stick does the talking – spilled the beans. “I enjoyed the staging. That Mario Gas is a wise guy, and aesthetically he gave us some very elegant theatre. The dialogue scenes worked very well and the verse was gracefully enunciated.” The Jester’s choosy about his alexandrines. “A gold star for some nicely observed and pretty costumes by Antonio Belart. The comic actors were extremely good too, but …” (looking daggers) “… I can’t say the same for the musicians. Andrea Marcon’s conducting was chaotic and the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid was simply not up to the job, stylistically, for such a demanding score. Boccherini deserves better. Carmen Romeu was a capable Clementina, most of the other singers just about adequate. As for the tenor … well, if he hasn’t fled Madrid already, I’d just like him to know that I have his name, I have my stick, and that if I ever catch him….”
Noticing that the strumming-arm of my shirt was covered in blood, I chasséd swiftly across to the Veiled Lady. “I agree with the Jester in all his opinions.” She always does. She knows which side her bread’s buttered. “Dear Ramón’s wonderful text was expanded very significantly from the production’s premiere, a few years ago at Teatro Español. The orchestra was not good – but then that reminds me that the Orquesta Barroca de Venecia was not good either. I think Sr. Marcon should come up and see me some time. I’ll soon put his baton straight.” She took my good arm and moved me out of the Jester’s hearing. “Don’t mind what he says, dearie. The lighting and tasteful set colours were very lovely, but the staging was too simple, too static and deadly boring.” With a tantalising flip of her veil, she whispered into my ear, “And yes, you are right – ¡no es zarzuela!”
At this point the Jester noticed she was up to something crooked. Gathering up her skirts, the Veiled Lady scooted off down the street, only turning to shout, “mind you dearie, the actor playing the Marqués de la Ballesta [Xavier Capdet] was very camp and funny!”. “She’s on the money there”, agreed the Jester, backstabbing a passing tourist before sidling off towards El riojano for a coffee and palmier con sangre, “although he was a bit too theatrical for my tastes.” I smiled nervously, as my arm began to bleed again.
As I’d missed the show, there was no chocolata y churros for me from Paolo, curse him! Mooching off towards the River Manzanares to find a lavandera to wash my shirt and give my strumming-arm a massage, I thought about what the Veiled Lady had said… “¡no es zarzuela!” And por dios she’s right! Who needs this Italian-sounding Clementina when we have Marina? Who needs Boccherini and Mozart anyway? Foreigners! Curse the lot of them, with their kings and queens and fol-de-rol ways! We should erect a statue of Robespierre in Madrid made from human meat! I think my chum Don Federico Chueca should be writing a zarzuela about me, to push this Italian garbage off the stage for good and all. I’ll ask my old mucker Valeriana to have a word. I believe her daughter’s in the family way….
.... but then I remembered the Jester’s last words, accompanied by a vicious jerk of his pig’s bladder: “Don’t you forget, Wamba my friend, that genres do not matter at all. Only quality. And this Boccherini guy, he’s got class. Real class.”
*“Es una pena que Boccherini sólo escribiese esta zarzuela ... porque se nota que hay un autor que está a la altura de Mozart. Esta pieza es una de las grandes composiciones del teatro musical del siglo XVIII” (Paolo Pinamonti to El mundo, 5 May 2015)
© Wamba, and zarzuela.net 2015