Maite Alberola (Katiuska)  Teatro Arriaga, photo by E. MORENO ESQUIBEL Sorozábal
González del Castillo · Martí Alonso

Teatro Arriaga
(Bilbao, 26 September 2008)

Christopher Webber

If Emilio Sagi’s compression of Luisa Fernanda seemed to be trying to make an opera out of a zarzuela, what are we to make of his even more radical reframing of Katiuska? This reframing is no mere metaphor, but literal: inside Daniel Bianco’s skewed gilt picture frame we have a tilted, light birchwood box with sliding panels, opening out into a serene blue Ukrainian night sky complete with moon. Outside to front and rear drably-suited refugees clamber through charred and broken revolutionary remnants, carefully picking their way towards the haven of the birch-box inn.

It’s a beautiful, bold and suggestive setting for what remains of González del Castillo and Martí Alonso’s scenario, stripped of all minor characters and one rather major one (Iván); shorn of folkloristic and sensational incidents, notably the wounding of Pedro Stakoff; distilled to an interval-free 80 minutes. As there’s something like 55 minutes music, that leaves little time for dialogue, and less for plot. The old Act 2 becomes pretty much a pure concert, the convoluted original ending replaced by a streamlined finale in which Katiuska makes a straight choice between Princess and Woman of the People.

Katiuska, Principe Sergio, Colonol Bruno, Olga, Boni, Tatiana et. al.  Teatro Arriaga, photo by E. MORENO ESQUIBEL

The effect of all this is to focus the spotlight firmly on Sorozábal’s music, played absolutely uncut in the new ICCMU edition made by the composer's grandson Pablo Sorozábal Gómez. It’s amazing that such a tightly integrated and assured effort could be his first for the lyric stage, a world away from those respectable compositions, informed by Basque folklore and German formal precedents, from before and during Sorozábal's Leipzig study years. With its syncopated saxophone, shimmering mandolin and honky-tonk pit piano, Katiuska’s scoring is classic Sorozábal zarzuela moderna, a potent mixture of popular jazz and romantic lushness owing something perhaps to Emmerich Kálmán, but all his own in orchestral wizardry and harmonic invention. Number after number maintains the standard, bolstered by the composer’s clever motivic use of Slav folksongs such as the Volga Boatmen. Only the biting irony of the later scores is missing from what remains a melodic masterpiece.

Sagi’s instinct to throw all dramatic weight onto the music is surely right. Katiuska suffers from a weak libretto, which even amidst the triumph of the 1931 Barcelona premiere was criticised for failing to capitalise on its near-contemporary, Red Revolutionary setting. The writers pull their punches at every opportunity, reducing political conflict to an operetta romance of confused aristocratic identities and love-or-duty politics. And although his production feels at times like work-in-progress, Sagi’s lean and mean Katiuska makes an emotionally gripping, highly entertaining theatrical spectacle. The intelligence with which Sorozábal’s generous mixture of musical genres is treated should ensure that no open-minded zarzuelero is going to feel short-changed by the result.

An outstandingly strong cast helps the cause. If the audience in Bilbao’s gorgeously ornate (proudly pre-revolutionary!) Arriaga Theatre was reserved in its appreciation for Maite Alberola’s haughty, dreamily sensual take on the title role, Erté stole, sequins and all, that’s no reflection on her lustrous, chocolate con churros vocal weight and tone. She’s not afraid to take risks either, with two valiant attempts at extreme pianissimi in alt. Opposite her, Ángel Ódena’s straight-backed, grizzled Pedro scored a hit as a forthright but sensitively sung Red Commissar. The sexual tension between them was convincing enough to make the duet at the score’s heart as moving as it should be. At the aristocratic apex of the triangle Jon Plazaola is a nicely etiolated Príncipe Sergio: his voice may be on the small side, but it is perfectly formed in the old-fashioned tenorial virtues of clean intonation and precise diction.

Boni, Tatiana, Olga, Pich,  Teatro Arriaga, photo by E. MORENO ESQUIBEL

Comedy is in the most capable hands. Milagros Martín’s Olga is fully bedded-in to the quicksilver spirit of the production, sliding with easy verve between the Slav-Spanish melancholy of “Ucraniano de mi amor” and the jazzy high-jinks of “A París me voy”. That was given a quick encore: we might have had one too for “Cosacos de Kazán”, wittily staged to showcase Enrique Baquerizo’s gangling Colonel and Mikeldi Atxalanabaso’s beaming innkeeper on the make; and for the Boston Waltz, where this disreputable trio were joined by Trinidad Iglesias’s no-holds-barred, lusty maidservant. Lander Iglesias made what he could of the Catalan stocking salesman, reduced to a few comedy remnants.

The sterling qualities of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra and Coral de Bilbao are familiar worldwide from their Naxos recordings, and under David Giménez Carreras’s sensitive and careful baton they brought out the subtleties of Sorozábal’s score to great effect – the mock-accordion effect of alternating woodwind and strings in “Ucraniano de mi amor” proved a special, teasing delight. I hope the same forces get the chance to consolidate these virtues in the forthcoming production runs at Valladolid, Oviedo and Madrid’s Teatro Español, maybe letting rip in addition with a little of the adrenal excitement we’re used to from the composer’s own accounts on record – though in truth he’s a hard act to follow. Meanwhile this will do very well indeed. It’s to Emilio Sagi’s credit that he has faith in Sorozábal’s score to let it stand or fall more or less by itself. Marvellously, it stands.

© Christopher Webber 2008

Boni, Olga, Colonel Bruno, Pich,  Teatro Arriaga, photo by E. MORENO ESQUIBEL Cast: Maite Alberola (Katiuska); Ángel Ódena (Pedro Stakoff); Jon Plazaola (Príncipe Sergio); Enrique Baquerizo (Coronel Brunovich); Milagros Martín (Olga); Trinidad Iglesias (Tatiana); Mikeldi Atxalanabaso (Boni); Lander Iglesias (Amadeo Pich); Coral de Bilbao, Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa; Emilio Sagi (d.); Daniel Bianco (designer); Pepa Ojanguren (costumes); Eduardo Bravo (lighting design); Nuria Castejón (choreography); David Giménez Carreras (c.)

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29 September 2008