Anyone who caught Teatro de la Zarzuela’s revelatory production of El juramento over a decade ago will be curious to see more Gaztambide, so their first revival in over a century of the 1852 single act zarzuela El estreno de una artista (“An Artiste’s Debut”) is very welcome. It does not disappoint. Eugène Scribe’s morceau of backstage chicanery, culminating in the sabotage of a young soprano’s concert debut by jealous conductor Astucio, was adapted into fluent Spanish verse by Ventura de la Vega. The writing is sharp, and recasting the soprano and her tenor lover as Spaniards marooned in an Italian Court adds savour – not least by allowing replacement of the original Pierrot/Columbine “audition” number by a Spanish gypsy song on the edge of parody.
Daniel Auber’s original music was ditched in toto. It’s important to be clear about this, as talk of “adaptation” or “translation” has often misled people into thinking that much 1850’s zarzuela music was merely modified from French originals. Wrong! Gaztambide is surely indebted to Auber’s lightness of touch and the smooth urbanity of later, “French” Donizetti operas such as La fille du régiment; but this score’s elegance and distinctive harmonic-orchestral delicacy is all his own. Of the five numbers, a Terceto for the Machiavellian conductor, his wife and the Spanish tenor stands out for melodic grace and structural felicity; but the most original music comes in the long and complex Final, where the conductor undermines the soprano by getting the orchestra to play by turns too loud, too fast and in triple rather than duple time. There’s a wonderful moment of cacophony where orchestra and singer get “out” by a bar, but Gaztambide is always tasteful and clever, sustaining musical argument without coarseness, and humour without vulgarity.
It’s hard to believe that this gem of old-world, opéra comique elegance appeared two years after the zarzuela with which it’s sensibly coupled. Gaztambide was a gifted composer of distinct personality, but Francisco Barbieri was something else again, a master of comedy worthy to stand proud in any musical company. His 1850 Gloria y peluca (“Triumphs or Trims”) may be short, and it may be cited in the reference books as just a stepping stone to the breakthrough 3-act Jugar con fuego; but on this showing it’s a glory in its own right. The plot, featuring a Madrid barber and wannabe composer of Italian opera whose delusions of grandeur are cured by shock therapy from his feisty seamstress girlfriend, is wafer thin. It has the shape and scale of an 18th century tonadilla, and Villa del Valle’s text hints at a subtext often found there too – namely that los madrileños should be doing what’s natural to them, rather than wasting their talents on Italian opera. Better a Spanish barber (or indeed a Barbieri) than an imitation Italian.
If the message is simple, the music hits it home with wonderful force. From first bar to last Barbieri’s pulsating humour keeps us smiling. The numbers for the two principals with their choruses of customers and seamstress supporters are as physically exhilarating as Verdi, and we don’t need to understand the words to know how María is lecturing her lover in her lilting seguidillas, charmingly orchestrated with touches of castanet and triangle, and setting Spanish music directly against the Italian mood of the rest. The gulf between how the two works use Spanish idioms is nowhere better appreciated, than in comparing this popular seguidillas with the polite, middle-class gypsy play-acting of El estreno.
The climax comes with a vocal tour de force for the barber, as he sings all three roles – bass, tenor and (yes) soprano – in a mock-Italian trio, hilariously guyed, before seeing his operatic ambitions literally go up in smoke and accepting the considerable compensation of marriage to his Madrid girl. Barbieri’s comparatively unsubtle, direct musical style never developed far, but it didn’t need to. He has the ability to say exactly what he wants to say in the shortest possible space, and to say it memorably. Gloria y peluca is the real deal. Hats off, gentlemen, a miniature masterpiece.
Both zarzuelas are strongly cast throughout. Doubling as Gaztambide’s plotting conductor and Barbieri’s barber Marco Moncloa has star comedic quality and direct, modern appeal. Fernando Latorre sings both roles well, and conjures up a sense of period in his gangling, Italianate posturings which is equally effective in its own way. Sonia de Munck as the Spanish singer Sofía in El estreno cements her reputation as perhaps the most effective lyric soprano and actress around zarzuela today; whilst Dolores Lahuerta’s seamstress in the Barbieri is pure joy. Vocally she’s good, but beyond that she has a natural charm and presence about her which touches the heart. I hope the Teatro de la Zarzuela will be welcoming Lahuerta back soon for more of the same.
The music has been well prepared, with good new editions for both works commissioned from leading musicologists – the reinstatement of a secco recitative in Gloria y peluca from the manuscript proves a particularly strong addition. José Miguel Pérez-Sierra conducts with proper attention to stylistic differences, though orchestral ensemble and execution were some way short of perfection on the opening two nights. By contrast the Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela once again proves an asset, singing with a power that served to amplify Barbieri’s achievement in every sense. In a work of such slender proportions it’s wonderful to hear a large body of fine singers, rather than the usual two or three gathered together.
Ignacio García and his team have conjured up a handsome mise-en-scene. The onstage orchestra of ducal courtiers in El estreno are arranged like panels in a colourful Russian icon, and the understage barber’s shop for Gloria y peluca, with an Italian opera performance going on above and behind the action, certainly highlights the theatrical point. García also “directs the traffic” with such skill and imagination that I can forgive him the introduction of a superfluous zany called “Maestro Toscán”, a rival maestro to Astucio not to be found in de la Vega’s script. The diminutive Emilio Gavira adds fearsome zest to proceedings, popping up with his repeated screams of “intriga!” all over the place, and cutting through the prevailing gentility of tone like a rusty knife.
I can’t however grant García an indulgence for a stroke of stupidity which threatens to scupper the show. Fusing the Italian conductor Astucio with the Spanish barber Marcelo into one Italian character and having the Barbieri zarzuela taking place in Italy is a directorial tumour which he should have had the courage to cut out as soon as it lodged in his brain. It causes problems which undermine and dilute the drama – why shouldn’t an Italian, living in Italy, be writing Italian opera? and why should a Madrid seamstress be getting so hoity-toity about it? – and it also creates a psychological gap between the sophisticated professional conductor and the musically incompetent amateur barber, which is impossible for the performer to bridge. Don’t audiences have enough intelligence to figure out links between the two pieces for themselves, without this condescending spoon-feeding?
García digs another hole by inserting a five minute chunk of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (referenced in the Gaztambide) in front of Barbieri’s opening Chorus, which in consequence seems to start in the “wrong” key. I don’t think any ironic contrast was intended between the Heavenly Length of the Italian’s long-breathed vocal phrases and the Spaniard’s no-nonsense brevity, but that’s what comes to mind; and the effect is incongruous. Luckily Barbieri’s strong music soon airbrushes such theatrical insensitivity out. As for the desperate textual interpolations explaining quite why Astrucio has changed both name and partner more or less overnight, these seem all the more dotty when both partners are played by one singer (as they were on the first night by the admirable Marisa Martins) and one wonders why nobody had the kindness to send García’s concept to the Swiss Clinic for Hopeless Cases at an early stage.
It’s like watching a bad dream which never quite gels, and where familiar people behave in a disconcertingly alien way. No matter. El estreno de una artista isn’t touched by the concept, and the Barbieri proves robust enough to pull Ignacio García out of his own hole. In bringing another excellent Gaztambide score back into the brilliant light of day, and presenting Barbieri’s little burlesque with an amplitude and skill which reveals it to be artistically as well as historically important, the director and his Teatro de la Zarzuela company deserve our enthusiastic applause. In the last analysis his bit of silliness proves only a minor distraction from a major achievement.
© Christopher Webber 2011