Offenbach, composer
of zarzuelas

'Wednesday concerts',
Fundación Juan March,

14, 21 and 28
October 2020

Jacques Offenbach

report by Ignacio Jassa Haro

The Juan March Foundation’s programme of concerts is, without doubt, the most comprehensive in the Spanish capital, due to the length and variety of its listings and – above all – the care and rigour with which it builds coherent and stimulating seasons. Dedicating a cycle to the figure of Jacques Offenbach is commendable, given the almost complete absence of the composer from the Spanish stage; but, in addition, approaching him through the theoretical studies that examine him, is an act of courage and intelligence.

Offenbach, composer of zarzuelas offered audiences the opportunity to see how zarzuela can – and must – broaden its definition, so corseted by theorists and performers over the last hundred years. The proposition here is to view as zarzuelas those creations of European popular musical theatre adapted to the Spanish stage by the creators, entrepreneurs and performers who were simultaneously producing the repertoire branded with that indigenous word with golden roots, which begins with the letter ‘z’. In an absorbing, introductory essay preceding the notes to the concerts, Enrique Mejías García – a regular contributor to this portal, who has dedicated almost a decade of research to studying this phenomenon – explains to us, how during the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, the work of native zarzuela composers and writers was to recreate foreign musical theatre, adapted as lyric comedy for the Spanish stage. In this sense, the Juan March Foundation’s programme can be viewed as a kind of vindication of our colleague’s doctoral thesis, as well as an eloquent exercise in practical musicology.

The first two concerts explored the presence of Offenbach’s theatrical work on zarzuela’s stages, one of them revisiting some happy episodes of that story – which also presented a selective journey through the extensive and generically varied production of the Cologne-born composer – and the other focusing on a single example, in the form of a dramatized concert staging.

Aurelio Viribay, Carolina Moncada, Alejandro del Cerro

For the song recital (October 14) we were graced with two zarzuela interpreters closely associated in recent years with projects reviving forgotten repertoire, the much-admired Carolina Moncada and Alejandro del Cerro, joined by the secure and imaginative Aurelio Viribay at the piano. To hear from their voices and hands such varied and irresistible delights as the tirolesa from ¡Me cayó la lotería!  [Le 66!], the duet from the second act of Barba Azul [Barbe-bleue] or the seguidillas from La Favorita [La Périchole], not only produced moments of delicious inspiration, but also provided evidence of a perfect fit between the original music and its highly-singable, historical translations. The mastery of these artists in perfectly clear vocalisation, as much in intention as enunciation, phrasing and musical comprehension – the skill set which makes up what we call ‘style’ – was happily no different from the one they use when tackling the Hispanic repertoire to which we are more accustomed. Special praise is due to Moncada, in meeting the challenge of tackling roles of very varied vocal range: it goes without saying, that this never compromised her outstanding performance.

Irene Palazon in El caballero feudal

The choice of El caballero feudal (‘The Feudal Knight’, that is Croquefer, ou Le Dernier des Paladins) – a true, one-act opéra-comique of buffo character – was the greatest of the cycle’s many revelations (October 21), the fantastic tale of a knight without shame and without a penny, and his faithful squire, who champions the pride his lord should show. The pair are faced with the knight’s long-standing rival, whose daughter he keeps kidnapped in his home castle, which gives rise to a hilarious series of confrontations worthy of Monty Python and masterfully mocking the conventions of Grand Opera. The need to abandon the project’s ideal of a full production, due to the coronavirus pandemic, did not diminish by one iota the pleasures of the very lively and revealing semi-staging that was offered us in exchange (especially as the concert was broadcast on Spanish radio). Although the original librettists, Adolphe Jaime and Etiénne Trefeu, can’t be exempted from praise for the outstanding result, we believe that it was mainly down to the knowing Salvador María Granés (1840–1911), perpetrator of a long series of Offenbach adaptations before becoming one of the writers who gave birth to género chico.

Fernando Poblete, Carlos  Diez in El caballero feudal

But neither should the team of Francisco Matilla and Fernando Poblete be forgotten when it comes to handing out bouquets for the success of this concert: for their Concerto XXI Nvivo – read, Madrid Comic Opera – were fully committed to the musico-theatrical text of this piece, deploying their best artistic skills as great supporters of Spain’s zarzuela tradition. Matilla’s canny and minimally-invasive theatricality overcome the lack of a stage; his direction of the performers presented us with a happy sense of radio drama. From the team of six (a pianist and five singers), coronavirus forced four replacements during the rehearsal process, without compromising the quality of the result.

Gerardo  Bullon, Francisco Diaz-Carrillo in El caballero feudal

Gerardo Bullón deserves the highest praise for addressing the comic complexity of the title role which defines the piece, hitting the right balance of sparkling display and dark nastiness. It is evident that the interpretive school in which he has been trained  – Gaztambide, Barbieri, Olona, ​​Larra – carries as much weight as his experience as General Boum from The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein itself. The other singer-actors, Emilio Sánchez, Irene Palazón, Francisco Díaz-Carrillo and Francisco Matilla himself, contributed attractive personal brilliance always tempered by the company style. The solid pianism of Carlos Díez and concert master Fernando Poblete further endowed the work with an irresistible musicality, especially during the complex ensembles.

Angel HuidobroThe cycle’s epilogue (October 28) was dedicated to piano works, derived from Offenbach’s theatre music. It included now-forgotten composers, who either created virtuosic works inspired by the composer’s most celebrated tunes, or produced dance ballroom or salon potpourris of motifs from his famous stage shows. All this produced a lively market of publications that were ubiquitous in music stores, and therefore contributed to the reception of Offenbach’s music in Spain. The pianist Ángel Huidobro deftly transported us on a novel journey through the universe of the Judeo-Franco-Prussian composer, from which one vista was missing: the understanding of these compositions in the light of stylistic reference to the music from which it took wing.

This project benefitted from various elements of the Juan March Foundation’s ‘Wednesday Concerts’ programme into which it was integrated, increasing its ability to reach more people – potentially everyone, even. As a collaboration with Radio Clásica (of Radio Nacional de España) the direct broadcast received a lively presentation from Pedro Antonio Tomás, preceded by interviews gracefully conducted by Martín Llade with Enrique Mejías himself, Fernando Poblete, Francisco Matilla and Manuel Lagos. In addition, the Foundation has published a valuable programme book for the cycle, which includes that introductory essay plus notes to each of the three concerts – all written by Mejías – as well as the revised libretto text of El caballero feudal, artists’ biographies and juicy appendices such as a map of Offenbach’s Madrid and a complete list of his adaptations into zarzuela. The concerts were enjoyed live on Radio Clásica (whose audios are available for one month in the ‘a la carte’ section on the website), on the March Channel and the Foundation’s dedicated YouTube channel. Last not least, complete or partially-edited video content will remain available on these last two platforms.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro and, 2020

in Spanish
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