This revival of Pablo Luna's El niño judío at the Teatro de la Zarzuela was a reminder of the strength in depth of Spain's unique brand of music theatre. A picaresque adventure starting in a Madrid bookstall, progressing via Aleppo to Hindustan, El niño judío (1918) comes over as a virile cross between Puccinian exoticism and Carry On Up the Khyber. It is hugely entertaining, full of verbal and musical spirit, whilst subtly hinting at deeper questions of cultural and personal identity: Samuel, the madrileño Jewish Boy of the title, is in search of his real father, the question on which his fortune-and marriage to his beloved Concha-depends. Operetta this is not!
Luna's music is a seductive mix of sweeping lyricism and chic comedy. He was a highly imaginative orchestrator, and perhaps the most delicious morsels of this score are its highly-flavoured dances and intermedios - not least the Danza India, its curried harmonies weirdly evocative of a troop of elephants dancing a pasodoble, as well as providing a foretaste of the Hollywood epic style. Much of the score was unfamiliar to those of us who only know the work from the truncated Argenta recording (not in any case his most convincing), and on this showing a complete CD of this magical work is evidently needed!
Jesús Castejon's modern, fast-paced production was a joy, faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the text. Although his idea of having a group of 'semitic sprites' interact or interfere with the characters occasionally put a spoke in the wheel of the action, their entertainment for the audience in and outside the foyer before the show and during the interval certainly helped break down that unnatural barrier of the proscenium arch. More dubious was the (directorial?) decision to replace Rebeca's touching slave song in the Aleppo scene with the Danza del fuego from Benamor, jarring in mood and key (though well enough danced and atmospherically lit).
The imposing monumental settings by Ana Garay proved a solid base for colourful evocation of Luna's exotic itinerary. Rafa Castejón's physical inventiveness and pleasant light tenor made him an ideal Jewish Boy, and the rest of the large cast was uniformly impressive-not least the Indian Rajah and his imposing wife (Rafael Castejón, patriarch of this famous Madrid theatre family, and Berta Ojea). Their double act - a put-upon Indian Mikado with his own imperiously sadistic Katisha - was highly engaging, not least for Ojea's Salome-like strip to Luna's cheeky pastiche of Richard Strauss.
Carmen González as a grainy-voiced Concha, resplendent earlier in cardigan and horn-rimmed spectacles, had the daunting task of emerging from behind a Spanish flag in full mantilla fig to sing the score's best known number, the flamboyant "De España vengo", trusty warhorse of the great line of Spanish sopranos from Bori and Supervía through De los Angeles to Caballe. If she didn't erase those vocal memories, she enjoyed her triumph with a patriotic audience very much fired up by the Peace March going on outside the theatre.
The chorus are an immensely strong component of Madrid's permanent zarzuela company, and here excelled themselves on the acting as well as vocal front - the opening chorus of the Aleppo scene was thrilling in its precision and strength of purpose. The orchestral contribution under director Miguel Roa was equally distinguished, beautifully played and paced. Altogether Madrid zarzuela seems currently in the safest of hands.
© Christopher Webber 2003