Federico Moreno Torroba · Federico Romero
· Guillermo Fernández-Shaw
Madrid has a new space for summer theatre, the open-air stage of Puente del Rey. Located at one of the entrance gates of Casa de Campo, between Huerta de la Partida and the Iván de Vargas Palace, the theatre takes its name from the bridge over the River Manzanares by which it is accessed. It replaces the iconic stage formerly cited on the northern wall of the Royal Palace (in the famous Sabatini Gardens), without involving any loss of city amenity – rather, gaining a beautiful space designed extempore and nestling in the cultural hub of Madrid’s river, offering fine views of the monumental architectures that make up the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. As well as greeting this artistic innovation, we add a new writer to our roster, one both knowledgeable and passionate about Spanish music. Welcome, Carlos Figueroa!
It is certainly a happy coincidence that the day after the last performance of this Luisa Fernanda by Ópera Cómica de Madrid was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the librettists, the irreplaceable Guillermo Fernández-Shaw. A (presumably fortuitous) but timely tribute, although the nature of the space forced considerable pruning of the text in order to convert the original three acts into two. Such decisions, lately so in vogue lately – at Teatro de la Zarzuela we have witnessed similar cuts to El dominó azul, Black, el payaso and Luna de miel en El Cairo amongst others, some of which were real car crashes – can help energize scripts which are flimsy if not mediocre, linking the musical numbers with a welcome agility. It is a good idea, sure, for clothing the cold skeleton of a concert version, but when it is used to squeeze works needing an entire evening into a double bill, we cannot be so certain of satisfactory results. This is the case with Luisa Fernanda, which despite its classic status – which therefore makes it easier to streamline a plot so well known to many in the audience – has a libretto good enough to be respected. Yet we can understand, that in this sort of outdoor production other factors are at play, perhaps making “restructuring” necessary – something that this work, moreover, has already experienced in its eighty-year history.
In any case, Ópera Cómica’s version maintained a strong narrative, in its precisely-timed two hours, including a twenty-minute interval. Although converting the original three acts to two, the template of the original structure was evident in all three changes which the spartan setting underwent. Concerning which, I can say that while the two staircases and their scaffolding functioned well enough, the "wrestling cages" did not help much, especially in the first part (the original Act One) where the staging ranged from simple to plain bare, although it is true that such a stage could not “camouflage” larger structures. That changed with the showy Parasol Mazurka, where the costumes, colours and large cast finally managed to fill out the scene. It’s worth mentioning the lighting, intelligently deployed to create isolated spaces to characterize individuals; and the trees around the stage, which in the final scene (the Extremaduran Act Three) became part of the extended action. A happy thought.
Ópera Cómica de Madrid’s team can never be praised enough, either in their tremendous, chamber music format – the formidable Ensamble de Madrid – or in the larger format of Ópera Cómica itself. Sufficient proof of this was the evident camaraderie between musicians, singers, stage staff and dancers at the end of the final show. We must remind the City Council, however, precisely because of the guaranteed great experience this company provides, that though pieces like Luisa Fernanda are always a pleasure to see, there is more zarzuela beyond the obvious; and that Ópera Cómica are expert in the loving exhumation of that forgotten repertoire – as important or more so, dare we say, than the tried and tested one. Which is why I hope that in future projects, and in the interests of the winds of change blowing in Madrid, we’re rewarded with what Ópera Cómica does best. Especially if they were to take the risk and commitment to present in the same bills a musical as unknown [ed. at least in Spain!] as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Enough said.
The camaraderie was evident in the work of an orchestra, that Ensamble instrumental de Madrid, which played like a charm under the baton of Óliver Díaz, alongside excellent choral forces, clearly committed to the cause – as well as a luxury supporting cast which include noteworthy performances by Ricardo Muñiz, Trinidad Iglesias, Javier Ibarz and Carlos Crooke. As for the leading quartet, their high points were the ensembles: the duet “Caballero del alto plumero”, the trio “¡Cuánto tiempo sin verte…!” and the final duet “¡Cállate, corazón!” – all beautifully done, and well balanced between the lyrical and dramatic. The female leads fell to Carolina Moncada as an intense Luisa Fernanda, and Irene Palazón as the capricious Duchess. The baritone César San Martín, quite aside from taking the opportunity to show off in the famous, third-act chorus number, offered a good characterization of Vidal. Alejandro González was a great Javier in those duets and in the famous romanza “De este apacible rincón…”. The company’s chorus and ballet completed the roster, amongst which I’d highlight Ainhoa Martín in the role of blind singer (El saboyano) whose appearances were interestingly extended, of course serving to give unity to the redistribution of the Acts and providing a musical subtext through thematic exploration and harmonic distortion of the first-act Habanera.
© Carlos Figueroa 2015