A
breath
of fresh
air

La rosa del azafrán

Teatro de la Zarzuela

(Madrid, 13 July 2003)

La rosa del azafran - Teatro de la Zarzuela (Childrens' programme)

Ignacio Jassa Haro

Fresh air - that is what the most popular of Jacinto Guerrero's zarzuelas has been given in these hot summer days. The masterly libretto of the illustrious Romero/Fernández Shaw team retains its freshness, certainly. However, the authors' anthropological quest for realism, evoking the music and language of the people, agricultural work, costume and landscape, has diminished with the passage of time the force of their text. The fact is, that the "regional zarzuela" (a sub-genre of which La rosa del azafrán is the classic example) has been sadly despoiled of its theatrical effect, due to its folkloristic content being almost ossified into a formal rule.

Jaime Chávarri, the prestigious cinema director, engages for the first time with the world of zarzuela by staging this Rosa. But neither theatre nor music are totally foreign to him, as we must add to his memorable incursions into theatre some films of an eminently musical character (in which he assays other "popular" musical forms: canción española, tango argentino ...). In this zarzuela his directorial work yields brightness and shadows; the brightness is in the design concept, the shadows in its fleshing out.

I stress how positive it is, that we are presented with this fine tale rooted in classic drama, without all the ambient accretions imposed over the years as sacrosanct necessities. Chávarri voluntarily avoids the cliché of presenting this type of work as an authentic inventory of regional costumes and farming implements. I do not want to undervalue the anthropology but I do want to defend the validity of mounting this piece without having to fulfil to the letter each and every one of the stage directions providing local colour. Creative freedom leads Chávarri to present an uncluttered "clean" stage upon which La Mancha appears "diluted". This sacrifices the strong folkloristic trappings, but gains in dramatic intensity and above all modernizes the up until now almost immovable image of zarzuelas grandes of the 1920's and 30's as authentic paintings of folk customs. A second virtue - promoted by this desirable elimination of scenic distraction - is to use the spectacle to give a sense of history, even where this is detrimental to the supremacy of the music and above all the dialogue; the scenic and other resources employed by the director aid the task of letting the action flow naturally.

Chávarri's failing was the absence of direction for the performers, or at least the lack of a consistent style. In fact it can be said that there were as many acting styles as characters on the stage. This lack of unity meant that the effectiveness of each spoken or sung section depended on the individual quality of actors and singers; thus there were some brilliant moments, some indifferent and some bad. The second questionable aspect of the direction was the confusing chronology. The work's epoch remains undefined in the libretto even though it is apparently set during the last decades of the 19th century. Chávarri opts to transfer it to a specially critical time in Spanish history, with one act unfolding in the time of the Second Republic and the other at the beginning of the Franco era. What he intends by this is difficult to say. The dialogue is sometimes changed - for example the 19th century anti-Carlist General Espartero is transmogrified into 20th century Republican President Azaña - but no clear political conclusion emerges. Neither in the original nor the adaptation does the narrative mesh with this moment of history, and consequently there is no meaning when the lead lovers gain in Franco's era what was denied them during the Republic. In fact the obstacles to their love persist, and only a trick permits the pair to overcome them. The Civil War, which occurs between the acts in Chávarri's version, is surely something too terrible not to have affected the characters. In this sense only Juan Pedro changes at all, deciding that he must be married and returning for this reason to the village; but for this there was no need for a war - enough that he perceives the necessity of his love.

Particular aspects of the production worthy of mention are the "hit" comedy number of the work (la caza del viudo, "The Widower Hunt", Scene 4), which features the surprisingly un-macabre appearance of the deceased wife Gertrudis on stage, presiding over the election of her "replacement"; as well as the scene that follows the Coro de espigadoras (Gleaners' Chorus, Scene 5), where through a gauze we see Don Generoso and Juan Pedro acting out the meeting narrated by Moniquito; and the final apotheosis, with a Virgin of the Harvest that would disconcert any student of religious iconography.

Jacinto Guerrero (Madrid 1925-30)

Lighting plays a leading role; united to the simple and clearly composed clarity of the staging it was I think most responsible for the overall success of the mise en scène. The combination achieved moments of great visual beauty. The costumes were effective; designed with the mandatory lack of realism pursued by Chávarri, but without uniformity, in many cases they were very much within the spirit of the staging.

Federico Gallar and Alicia García made a brilliant leading couple vocally though more unequal dramatically. The young Canary Islands soprano surprised pleasantly by her beautiful timbre and vocal power, singing her role most vividly. However her spoken delivery told us that the singer still wants conversion into an actress. Gallar was in his element - all profligate enthusiasm in the Romanza del sembrador, as well as in the rest of the well-known melodies of his role. His acting lent conviction to the image of the sincere and honest man he had to portray. The "comedy pair" were, for their part, well balanced in all respects. They acted and sang with a great sense of theatre. Abascal made a delicious Catalina and Crooke a most restrained Moniquito, which is something to be thankful for. Occasionally they could both have done with greater vocal power, especially Crooke. The spoken roles of Carracuca and Don Generoso (that together with the greyer La Custodia make up the principal roles of this substantial work) found in Lahoz and Conde two memorable executants.

The chorus sang their rewarding part with great energy; on stage however they sometimes behaved like a load of sopranos, tenors and baritones who didn't know quite where to put themselves. The conducting was vigorous, but Miguel Roa knew how to get across the liveliness of the score without passing that critical point after which enthusiasm descends into vulgarity. The orchestra sounded well, being at all times awake to the needs of the drama; only at isolated moments was there any dislocation between pit and soloists.

Finally, the most important thing about this production - "The Chávarri Experience" - is that it has produced results from which we can draw interesting data for future incursions by outsiders into the world of zarzuela. Chávarri has offered an effective spectacle of visions and sounds, and of aesthetic emotions. For him the story (more narrative than representational) has taken precedence over the form of telling it; and, to stress it once more, he has opted for telling us this story without the formal trappings to which tradition has accustomed us. Notwithstanding that Jaime Chávarri has failed in his office, concerning some aspects of the staging, I imagine what has moved him to work in this way must be his interest in that "something else" apart from the pure theatricality of spectacle; but though he may concentrate his effort in a small area a stage director cannot ignore the foundations on which the scenic edifice must rest; for this reason the work sometimes came across lamely. Nevertheless, on balance the experience was to mind enormously positive - that mouthful of fresh air comes most gratefully in this heat.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2003


Alicia García (Sagrario); Federico Gallar (Juan Pedro); Mar Abascal (Catalina); Carlos Crooke (Moniquito); Alicia Sánchez (La Custodia); Fernando Conde (Don Generoso); Francisco Lahoz (Carracuca); Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela (Antonio Fauró, Chorus Master); Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Miguel Roa (Conductor); Jaime Chávarri (Director); Ana Garay (Designer); Pedro Moreno (Costumes); Juan Gómez-Cornejo (Lighting); Goyo Montero (Choreography).


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