A Zarzuela Premiere
Arguably there’ve been more premieres staged at the Teatro de la Zarzuela than any other active Spanish theatre. In its 150 years the number of works (mostly lyric theatre) which have seen the light on its stage exceeds eight hundred; the important thing about this overwhelming figure, is the fact that a far from negligible proportion of the total endures today in the zarzuela repertoire, and scarce a season goes by without a revival in this Madrid theatre of at least one “house” zarzuela.
A few weeks ago we experienced the latest example of this fertility. The Catalan-American Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) has given the stage premiere of a new work in the theatre on Calle Jovellanos – the one-act tragicomic “cartoon” chamber opera The Town of Greed, sequel to his earlier Hangman, Hangman! which was premiered 25 years ago at the International Barcelona Festival. But how come I dare to give the name “zarzuela” to an opera written by a contemporary composer of Hispanic origins living in America, with an English libretto concerning the collective imagination of the USA, and a modern and eclectic score? Well, for one simple reason: because I believe this project is much closer to the original spirit of the romantic zarzuela, the fruit of creative vitality and the author’s imperative towards theatrical communication, than the doomed attempts at resuscitation of the genre fuelled by various institutions through generous injections of public funds in the course of nostalgic archaeological reconstruction.
Leonardo Balada presents in his two zarzuelas chicas (though the second has a natural bond with its elder sibling it’s not necessarily destined to be united with it in the future) a new Morality Play of lust, greed, and death in the spirit of Valle-Inclán, prompting the thought hat the link between género chico zarzuela and the noventayochistas (“generation of 1898”) is stronger than tradition would have us believe. The score, impressively efficient in its response to the situations developed by the libretto, displays a wide diversity of styles and influences and a lightness of touch worthy not only of praise but also of thanks. The major moments of lyricism, which received in this staging the greatest applause, are the composer’s concessions to the conventions of zarzuela grande [ sic.!] But the great achievements of the two pieces (in which musicologists see an evolutionary “maturation” of Balada’s compositional language, but which I saw simply as his inability as an individual creative personality to repeat himself) are those tragicomic – or rather grotesque – moments in the manner of the sung portions of género chico, which progress the action or halt it in its tracks.
Gustavo Tambascio ’s staging nurtures the two zarzuelas’ “cartoon” flavour. But if the older sibling’s weight is carried by the music and the action, this did mean that the newborn one lost weight, swaddled as it was in luxurious, lush choreographic and scenic christening clothes. In his eloquent programme notes, Tambascio reviews the ingredients of the Balada Morality Play the director wanted to stress: sex, money and justice. Sex, sure there was lots to be seen (I don’t think I’m exaggerating much when I say that there was some couple or other fornicating on stage at all times); money, manifest in that so-called “bad taste” which strikes us in all epochs; justice (or the lack thereof, which amounts to the same thing), through the attention that was paid to the narrative thrust.
We wonder, however, what conjunction of bad stars led composer and director not to realize what a disservice to the public it was to play the work in a language not their own. If Hangman, Hangman! was performed in Catalan at its Barcelona premiere, and done in English when mounted at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA (the same language as the score and libretto, and also as recorded by Naxos), why lessen the Madrid audience’s enjoyment of the plot by refusing to let them hear it in Spanish? That figure of eight hundred Teatro de la Zarzuela premieres is slightly inflated for a reason I’m now forced to confess: some were premieres of foreign operas or operettas being sung for the first time in Madrid – but always in the language of Cervantes. One hundred and fifty years later are we to destroy what I believe is a fundamental keystone of the public’s sense of identification with the repertoire, that is to say the breaking down of the language barrier imposed by Italian opera over so many decades? Who would credit it!
Singing and acting for this premiere were very uneven. Top of the pile vocally were Chester Patton’s Father and Sonia de Munck’s Sweetheart. Sheriff and Hangman (David Rubiera and Enrique Baquerizo) struck a correct balanced between theatrical and musical values, though their English pronunciation in the parlatos was questionable; as the protagonist Johnny Gustavo Peña just about passed muster, though not without some disappointment both in stage and vocal presence; and as María José Suárez created a thinly characterized Mother. José Ramón Encinar led a well-motivated instrumental ensemble drawn from members of the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid, and a Teatro de la Zarzuela chorus in very good shape. The weighty artistic team headed by designer Juan Pedro Gaspar did their stuff, brilliantly evoking an iconic Mecca of the Wild West for the town of Greed. Just as ever over 150 years of continuous creativity, there were good, average and poor things in this show; no masterpiece as the time is not ripe – but those able to see it will have their expectations well met.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2007
Hangman!Tragi-comic “cartoon” chamber opera
in one act, based on a traditional cowboy song. Music and text by Leonardo
Balada (1982) Cast: Johnny - Gustavo Peña; Madre - María
José Suárez; Padre - Chester Patton; Amada - Sonia de Munck;
Sheriff - David Rubiera; Verdugo - Enrique Baquerizo; El hombre del pueblo (El
Irlandés) - Emilio Gavira; Narrador - Francisco Maestre. The
Town of Greed.Tragi-comic “cartoon” chamber
opera in one act and two scenes. Music by Leonardo Balada (1997), based on a
text by Akram Midani and the composer. Prologue by Gustavo Tambascio
Cast: Johnny - Gustavo Peña; Madre - María José
Suárez; Padre - Chester Patton; Amada - Sonia de Munck; Sheriff - David
Rubiera; Verdugo - Enrique Baquerizo; Secretaria - Gleisi Lobillo; Tokopoko -
Enrique R. del Portal; Mr. Rich - Matthew L. Crawford; Mr. Rot - Juan I.
Artiles Revuelta; Mr. Rat - Javier Galán; Mr. Wreck - Ricardo
Guilfillán; Mr. Rip - Alberto Ríos; Mr. Rude - Miguel Ferrando;
Embajador - Fernando Latorre; Caponne - Javier Galán; Secretaria del
Irlandés - Natalia Hernández; Hombre de Wall Street - Emilio
Gavira; Secretaria de la reina - Helena Dueñas; Secretaria del rey -
Juan Antonio Lumbreras. Design Juan Pedro de Gaspar and Esmeralda Díaz
(design); Jesús Ruiz (costume); Juan Gómez-Cornejo (A.A.I -
lighting); Álvaro Luna (projections); Orquesta de la Comunidad de
Madrid; Coro del Teatro de La Zarzuela (d. Antonio Fauró); Gustavo
Tambascio (d.); José Ramón Encinar (c.)
Though the Teatro de la Zarzuela production surprisingly marked The Town of Greed’s stage premiere, Leonardo Balada’s satirical “cartoon opera” double bill has been available on a well-packed Naxos CD since 2002, as part of their ongoing series devoted to the composer. Hangman, Hangman! was Balada’s first operatic work, followed by Zapata (the orchestral suite already reviewed here) and several more full-length works. In the composer’s own words, we are presented with a sound world where “abrasive contemporary orchestral sonorities co-exist with highly melodic vocal lines”. The “cartoon” element defines a sketch-book, grotesque theatricality which comes across effectively even on disc, especially in the more lyrically expansive Hangman…!
Aside from that, two shadows loom large on this Catalan-born, American naturalised composer’s operatic style. Kurt Weill’s American ballad opera Down in the Valley provides a structural template for Balada’s texts, whilst the German’s use of American idioms there and in Mahagonny and Seven Deadly Sins suggests musical shapes and solutions. Igor Stravinsky is a yet stronger presence, and not just in the clarity of the scoring which often recalls Les Noces and Soldier’s Tale. Beyond that, The Rake’s Progress proves the fertile model for Balada’s lyric style and English word-setting. The Sweetheart’s songs in Hangman…! are out of the exactly the same box as Anne Truelove’s music in the earlier opera, poised, fresh, delicately counterpointed – and very effective too. Less appealing are Balada’s threadbare English texts. I suppose it would have been asking the moon for something as suggestive as Brecht’s for Weill or Auden’s for Stravinsky, and in their literal way they carry the narrative well enough, though without adding much in the way of wit or poetry.
They are very clearly annunciated too by the Pittsburg cast, under the sympathetically precise Colman Pearce. Acting and singing from the principals is adequate, with a Sweetheart from Natalya Kraevsky which sounds less foggy the more she turns up the wick, and an accurate if pallid tenor Johnny from James Longmire. Mother and father are more characterful, and the conductor himself manages a very credibly Irish deus ex machina in Hangman…! The Pittsburg Camerata chorus is the star of the show, making plenty of the lament-finale of The Town of Greed (shades of the Bedlam scene in The Rake…) and singing with point and dedicated enthusiasm throughout.
With clear and well-balanced recording, full notes and – thank you Naxos – full librettos, there’s nothing to preclude a solid recommendation for anyone wanting to sample these attractive and thoughtful works, perhaps the nearest thing we have to zarzuela moderna. The Town of Greed is dedicated to the composer’s wife Joan: I can reveal that when I met the pair in London a couple of years ago, Joan confided that she made sure her husband heard plenty of the Real Thing, by packing their car full of zarzuela CDs for long cross-state journeys!
© Christopher Webber 2007
8 November 2007