One of the most dazzling aspects of the zarzuela phenomenon is its sheer size. Over 10,000 zarzuelas were written in the century from 850, over 100 have been recorded on LP or CD or both, many in multiple performances - dazzling indeed for novices trying to get a handle on the shape and scope of a fascinatingly diverse repertoire. Most of us will only come across the tip of the iceberg, but the Teatro de la Zarzuelas production of Gaztambides El juramento reminds us how much quality work must be submerged, tantalisingly just below the waterline.
Gaztambide was one of the founding fathers of Spanish musical nationalism, but though his name may be revered his works have been honoured more in the breach than the observance. Author Luis de Olona was presiding literary spirit of the movement, and El juramento - written in 1858 for the new Teatro de la Zarzuela - enjoyed momentary fame, only to be eclipsed by Barbieris Barberillo de Lavapiés with its ground-breaking populism. This is the first modern revival of a zarzuela which certainly merits exhumation.
The libretto is an elegant yet thoughtful comedy of manners, peopled with cynical and romantic aristocrats and their predictably comic servants. It owes a hint to a French model, but surely far more to Lessing and Kleist in its surprisingly disturbing examination of the complex emotions unearthed in the working out of its witty plot.
Olonas story not unlike da Pontes for Cosí fan Tutte - relies on a gambit of fantastic, implausible audacity. The Marquis of San Esteban marries María, a poor girl he hardly knows, in order to oblige his friend Don Carlos, who loves but cannot marry her because of difference in rank. What neither Carlos nor virtually anyone else knows is that the Marquis must die in battle within the month, having sworn an oath (el juramento) so to do in expiation for killing a man in a duel. This will leave his widow a Marquesa, and free to marry her aristocratic lover without objection. Difficulties set in when the new husband and wife start to fall in love with one another. As an honourable friend, he is duty bound not to lay a finger on the lady. Marías incomprehension and the couples mutual frustration make for the very human meat in Olonas comedy sandwich.
Of course 1850s zarzuelistos - even Barbieri - were very much reliant on Italian models, but Gaztambide at least chose the best. His music is Donizetti, edging into early Verdi as more serious, romantic elements increasingly shadow the plot. Nonetheless, there is a distinctive Spanish flavour to some of the music for the chorus and the Comedy Servants, as well as some very personal twists of harmonic and orchestral audacity. This is a technically accomplished, intelligent and delectable score, at least the equal of his contemporary Arrietas over-exposed Marina.
Fortunately, Emilio Sagis production literally evokes the shadows as well as the light of El juramento. Gerardo Trottis silhouette mansions and forests delicately suggest an atmosphere of romantic fairytale, Cornejos costumes combine handsomely stylised aristocratic grotesquerie with sudden shafts of realism. One or two minor directorial ideas misfire (notably the addition of an Alice-like little girl first seen reading about and then inhabiting the fairytale world) not because theyre inherently poor, but because they arent worked through; but Sagi handles the shifting, disturbed emotions of the principal characters with sensitive integrity.
More baffling for an unknown work was the omission of the first five scenes of Act One, including the first musical number. The understandable temptation to start with the bolero entry of the Baroness, a vividly cynical Aristo with a Heart of Gold faintly reminiscent of Lady Milford in Schillers Kabale und Liebe (can the authors have known Verdis Luisa Miller from 1849?) should have been resisted. This early cut almost completely removed the initial love interest between María and Don Carlos, and with it the poignancy of their later inevitable estrangement and the Marquiss moral dilemma.
Gaztambide's score is in safe hands under Miguel Roas light and neatly pointed direction. The subtle syncopations in the Male Choruss Gossip Chorus (Chu, chu, chu) were stylistically just right, pacing and dynamics spot on, orchestral and choral contributions of an impressive standard throughout. The piece was acted with uniform strength, just as zarzuela demands. Vocally, the soloists were more variable though high marks to Milagros Martín for her negotiation of the Baronesss trickily comic vocal pyrotechnics. Outstanding was the personable young baritone David Menéndez as Don Carlos, beautifully focussed in his one solo opportunity - a nocturnal, Spanish una furtive lagima; and best of all Eduardo Santamaría in the subsidiary role of the valet Sebastian, foolish, faithful and disappointed in love. Santamarías acting, vocal quality and musicianly intelligence should guarantee him a very high profile career as a Rossini tenor - definitely a name to watch.
Altogether El juramento opens our eyes to a neglected composer, and an intelligent, entertaining zarzuela of great merit. Its good news that a new agreement with Spanish Television will lead to a showing on Spanish TV for this and succeeding productions at the Theatre, and we may hope for a commercial video release - though not, alas, a CD recording - of a highly successful revival.
© Christopher Webber 2000