Music: José María and Ramón Usandizaga
Flying High with Low Passions:
Teatro de la Zarzuela has started its 2016/2017 season on a high, unveiling some structural modifications (new lift and refurbished bar), and on stage a new and very thoughtful production – almost inflated for these days – of a key work now rather overlooked, with a cast of great stature under the internationally-known Giancarlo del Monaco and the house’s new musical director, Óliver Díaz. This represents an advance along the ambitious path already marked out by the outgoing – and courageous – management. It would therefore be a good time for locals and the wider body of state taxpayers to finally take pride in the differing but complementary approaches of our two temples of lyric theatre, in the style of any major, cultural metropolis. The theatre on Jovellanos can genuinely afford to lift its eyes to the Teatro Real with greater dignity – just as it should, to expand and strengthen its image with its audiences and society in general, by reasserting itself as the ideal Spanish-speaking house for popular opera (i.e. zarzuela) which we have always longed for.
Las golondrinas is undeniably an essential reference point for the zarzuela repertoire. Born from the ever-turbulent and talented marriage of the Martínez Sierras and nurtured by star singers Emilio Sagi Barba and his wife Luisa Vela, its premiere in early 1914 was enough to make the impossibly young Usandizaga the musical idol of the moment. The work soon rose from the Teatro-Circo Price to the Zarzuela, even passing through the Real. It was recorded, exported, and earned its twenty-something composer the honour of nomination to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, by no less a voice than that of Don Tomás Breton.
It was, indeed, a unique project that defied conventional labels – the authors aptly called it a “lyrical drama”, without any more narrow definition – and widened the traditional mould of the zarzuela grande, bursting its bounds from within by an overflowing fount of music, drama and fantasy. It may be compared to what Bizet did to opéra comique with Carmen, but through the audacious “modernism” of the time with its characteristic symbolist and decadent edge. Among its many elements of scenic and musical innovation include its composer’s renunciation of verse in favour of a personal, musical prose; and the inclusion of two mimed scenes, the first and more famous a sophisticated “play within a play”; the second an authentic expression of the internal breakdown of the protagonist, in that suggestive game of mirrors between fiction and reality which precedes the denouement. With this, the Martínez Sierras opened the way to their decisive ‘Teatro de Arte’ – two pantomimas from which, Luna’s El sapo enamorado and Falla’s El corregidor y la molinera, have additionally been included in Teatro de la Zarzuela’s educational programme this month, in co-production with Fundación Jacinto e Inocencio Guerrero.
Sad to say, it is not the original masterpiece that is offered to us here, but the posthumous and apocryphal operatic adaptation, made in 1929 by the dead composer’s brother, Ramón Usandizaga. The intention at the time was to sell the score – a very complex one for ordinary zarzuela companies – to the great opera stages, which only rarely admitted spoken dialogue, starting with Barcelona’s Gran Liceu. This goal was not achieved, and – occasional revivals excepted – circulation and impact of this through-written version was much more limited than that previously achieved by the original. Undoubtedly, the work of Ramón (later director of the San Sebastian Conservatory) was competent and at times inspired, but the result is inevitably uneven and monotonous in its continual recycling of primitive material. It lacks the freshness and poetic lightness of the zarzuela original, with its teasing reminiscences of operetta, music hall and old folk music, without reaching the expressive intensity, much less the discursive flow of, say, something like Die Frau ohne Schatten (which is what Ramón aspired to).
Two decades ago, the pioneering Instituto Complutense de Ciencias de la Música (ICCMU) published a critical edition of the score in which the composer Ramón Lazkano deftly mixed the two brothers’ work. Unfortunately no one thought to also include the original zarzuela libretto, which seems to have sanctioned as “canonical” this elaborate, operatic forgery. The issue was discussed with excellent judgement by Professor Javier Suarez-Pajares in 1999, vis a vis the work’s production at Teatro Real. Since that time there has been little to add, except to lament the apparent ineffectiveness of two decades of academic criticism – supposedly in the business of questioning – from university musicologists. (Though let's face it, in the 21st century not even the monumental Diccionario de la Zarzuela took up the cudgels over this business). I cannot resist, however, recalling the Professor’s bitter and clairvoyant warning, sadly prophetic, that it “would be the height of absurdity for Teatro de La Zarzuela to now programme the operatic version of one of the best zarzuelas of all time”.
This is not a question of a sterile, pointless ‘genre war’. In recent seasons, after all, we have enjoyed with equal openness Curro Vargas and El Gato Montés, applauding Juan José as much as La generala, while bringing in a Pagliacci and no less spectacular Lady, Be Good. This is, first and foremost, a question of artistic integrity. Nobody today would dream of programming Die Zauberflöte in its “operatic” 19th century arrangement, much less of stripping the tragic Carmen of her sensual chorus of cigarette girls or colourful March of the Toreadors; however, it seems fair game to suppress the delicious chorus of circus odalisques that opened the second act of Las golondrinas, for the sake of preserving an alleged dramatic decorum, conventional in tone. That Usandizaga’s prudish family found this comic number too flippant, in line with stale High Bourgeois standards prevalent under the Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera, is perfectly understandable. To persevere with it almost a century later only reveals uncritical inertia and even condescension towards a group of works and composers who are too often presumed to be in need of correction, enhancement – or diminution, as a third course. As to that, I could not agree more with the thought of the director of Teatro de la Zarzuela himself, the Buenos Aires-born Daniel Bianco: “There is great prejudice against zarzuela: it is considered a minor art, the thought being that actually everything is more important in opera than zarzuela”. In fact some details from the zarzuela original have been respected: namely, the dialogue spoken by Puck and Cecilia over Lina’s song ‘Me dices que ya no me quieres…’ (whose strange magic is irretrievably ruined by operatic recitative) and the same characters’ third act duet.
All this would be a rather minor matter, did it not directly impact upon the effectiveness and excellence of a dish as tasty as that presented to us. It also compromises the future as well as present reception of a work of such universality as to appeal to the emotions of all sensitive spirits, which therefore – I am certain – would deserve a place of honour in the repertoire of any great opera house. Fortunately on this occasion, despite some unsteady moments there were too many good things around for these impediments to sink the ship.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera was magisterial in all senses, in an interpretation which from the very start imprinted her character with overwhelming charisma. Her forceful Cecilia, cigar in hand, like a worn-out, alienated Carmen, will be impossible to forget. Carmen Romeu, who in recent seasons has been confirmed in her own right as an essential diva of the house, mirrored her with skilful dedication, incarnating the hugely rich and attractive character of Lina. For sure the role’s demanding and tricky vocal moments seems to be right at the limits of her current tessitura, which did not prevent her displaying a fine, lyric line in the ‘Canción de primavera’, while demonstrating her qualities also in the most dramatic moments of the last act. I must also specially mention, to my surprise, the fantastic gestures deployed in the two pantomimas, which their creators could hardly imagine better done.
Rather more questions were raised by Rodrigo Esteves’s Puck, which only in the last scene imposed itself through his monumental vocal power. On the other hand, his earlier appearances were rough and somewhat erratic, both musically and theatrically, not allowing the lyricism necessary for his beautiful ballad, ‘Caminar, caminar’ – a much-anticipated and crucial number, which should tangibly raise the temperature in the auditorium. I believe that the blame must lie largely with a faulty conception of the character, who appears in this staging from his first entrance as a hysterical psychopath. Far from being arbitrary, the decision seems to stem from a mistaken sense of political correctness (so often the enemy of art), forcing a crude and two-dimensional vision of the male abuser. With this, the protagonist loses any possibility of psychological development and dilutes the theatrical effect of his angry outbursts; in addition to blocking all chemistry or empathy with his fellow mountebanks, so essential to understanding the truly existential drama of these strolling players.
Although Puck’s attitude certainly approaches Pagliacci-like Grand Guignol lunacy at the end of the work, it is ridiculous for the clown to virtually choke Cecilia with his first declaration of love, and implore forgiveness with a cynical parsimony worthy of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. Every good dramatist prefers to explore and understand the nooks and crannies of the human soul before judging – something the libretto takes care to do at all times, but the scenic auteur here preferred to ignore, or pretended to forget. In reality, only a sensitive, hopeful and visionary being could appear to his colleagues (and the audience) with the joy exhibited by Puck in his first scene:
Moreover, the visual spectacle was striking and powerful with an irreproachable theatrical classicism, with appropriate nods to silent film. A sober staging created by dark, drop-curtain scenes served as frame for Jesús Ruiz’s delicately fabulous costumes, all enhanced by highly expressive lighting, especially striking in the third act. Much of the stage movement was animated by circus acrobatics, sometimes somewhat superfluous, but not cluttering the dramatic narrative. Undoubtedly the wonderful pantomima of the second act was the most splendid and imaginative highlight, but there was no lack of other suggestive scenes – such as the final duet of the second act, with the singers faced with their own reflections in the dressing room mirrors. Strangely, Cecilia’s usual mocking laughter was absent from this number – a key element in the script, with symbolic and even musical value – I suppose to throw more blackening ink over Puck’s hallucinatory character.
To all this we must add an alert and voluminous orchestral sound, which not only paid respect to voices and rhythms at all times – no small thing, given Usandizaga’s intricate writing – but responded to moments of authentic inspiration from the conductor, after a somewhat morose first act. The chorus showed its usual professionalism and high standard, overcoming in its operetta-like appearance during act two, the virtuous but somewhat lifeless impression it made in the ‘Fair’ scene of act one. Nor should I overlook the exemplary acting and vocalism of Jorge Rodríguez-Norton as Juanito, in the kind of comic role for which these days it is difficult to find interpreters so perfectly versatile. All the more reason to regret the deletion of his scene with the tiple odalisques, ‘¡Ay!, Juanito, Juanito…’ which should provide a sensational breath of fresh air to the drama.
In short, we must be thankful for the artistic success of this Golondrinas, while still dreaming of the day when true justice to the late ‘Joshemari’ Usandizaga and his writer María de la O Lejárraga (disguised as ‘Gregorio Martínez Sierra’) will rehabilitate the original values, still distorted, of this heart-rending poem of love, hope, desire and death.
© Mario Lerena, Christopher Webber (trans.)