Success of a brilliant adaptation
Is Paco Mir's theatrical adaptation of Los sobrinos del capitán Grant faithful to what the librettist Miguel Ramos Carrión intended more than 120 years ago, when basing his zarzuela on Jules Verne's novel of the same name? A hearty "yes" on several counts: because Mir and Ramos Carrión show great respect for the text from which they deviate, by the extraordinary sense of spectacle they share, and by being fully attuned to the audience of their time; consequently the artistic result of their work is very similar.
Verne's text was admirably adapted to a Spanish setting by Ramos Carrión, who no doubt wished to partly hispanicise the work in order to connect better with his public, without altering the spirit of the novel, that is first and foremost an exciting adventure story. He completely threw out the erudite geographical apparatus, part and parcel of Verne's narrative but inappropriate for the stage, and also to a large extent the romantic content, which he gently caricatured. The intrepid succession of eventful journeys that the Amiens writer takes over almost thousand pages is brilliantly condensed into a few, well-selected scenes that allows us to make a spectacular comedy-musical-geographical journey.
In a sense the expectations of a theatre piece produced for los bufos madrileños forced this work to be an inexhaustible source of scenic splendour. The question of fidelity to the original literary source is also palpable in the weight the zarzuela grants to eroticism, totally absent from the novel but essential in most works of the bufo kind; the necessity to reach a compromise between the "pure" original work and the public demand for titillation means that erotic double-entendres appear in the zarzuela, though they are practically restricted to the habanera of the Chilean woman [text] and perhaps to the dúo-duel of the tiples [text]. On the other hand the sense of Verne's humour (very compatible, by the way, with the Spanish one) is superbly maintained and developed by Ramos Carrión.
Mir follows with almost total fidelity Ramos Carrión's dramatic structure, excepting some scenes of little dramatic value, at the cost of sacrificing certain musical passages still unknown today and also jeopardising the narrative continuity - not to present the catastrophe of the "twelve o'clock train" can disorient the audience. His main task was to extract and harness anything that fits the dramatic values of the work, which in the main though not exclusively are of a comedic nature. So he resorts to a humorous realisation, as much at textual as scenic level, full of jokes and visual gags tied to the sense of humour and visual culture of the contemporary Spaniard. But Mir has not allowed humour to run riot to the extent of replacing narrative fluidity as "queen of the scene."
The music of course does not suffer adaptation; the only additions are a few pretty touches of "maorí jazz". Manuel Fernández Caballero's charming score serves, with his usual surefootedness, to add rhythm and melody to the spoken discourse. And just as the bufos demanded he provided easily assimilated music based almost completely on dance forms. Specially interesting are the little known symphonic numbers serving as intermezzi between scenes, or underlining the moments of great scenic spectacle - several inspired descriptive passages seem to anticipate film music.
The spectacular components of this production at the Teatro de la Zarzuela (premiered in the 2001/2 season and now revived) are as far as we can judge of lesser dimensions for the present audience, compared against the luxurious extravaganza made available to those attending the Teatro Príncipe Alfonso in 1877 for the first performances. In any case the most spectacular moments we're offered always come hand in hand with parody - the most telling example in this respect is the scene where Doctor Mirabel is carried off by the giant condor, all represented by puppets.) In sum, the current staging concentrates on text and performers, rather than those scenic elements intrinsic to its bufo origins, as pleasant a complement to the action as the music.
The artistic direction reaches the highest levels in the Spanish and American episodes of the nephews' circumnavigation; the most beautiful settings, the most showy costumes and the most dazzling lighting are in that first part. The Australian and New Zealand acts are too dark; the stage scenes are more claustrophobic and indifferently staged - the great exception being the dramatic scene at the bottom of the sea where cheeky bubbles of visual humour are sprinkled over Caballero's elegantly executed Waltz. The best worked scenes are those involving the sextet of protagonists whose costumes make an integrated impression in spite of their diversity.
The performances are integrated with all these features yet remain the crucial thing. Of the six protagonists from the December 2001 premiere, four remain. Anna Argemí and Pepín Tre are new to their roles, logically following on / deviating from their predecessors in the roles; thus if Argemí follows Maria Rey-Joly's style, as dictated by the Scottish elements in the character of Miss Ketty, Tre makes an effort to move away from the marvellous histrionics of Fernando Conde, who had a clear antecedent in Narciso Ibáñez Menta in the version recorded for Spanish Television, inventing a simple and good-natured Doctor Mirabel. Milagros Martín and Xavi Mira give watertight performances as los sobrinos, playing well off one another. Richard Collins-Moore is in full control of the comedy role of Sir Clyron. Millán Salcedo, a big TV star, is able to make on the other hand his 2nd Lieutenant Mochila sympathetic and uniquely his own; this character is the great triumph for Mir (and for Salcedo) although the dominance he exercises over his five fellow travellers alters the original balance of the work. Salcedo's assurance is all the more evident, compared against the original production - now he has dotted the I's and crossed the T's of his performance. The other roles, interpreted by a smaller number of actors and singers (some having to play as many as five different characters) work less well; worthy of mention are Francisco Lahoz as the Comandante and Abel García as the General. The orchestra and the chorus provide the necessary musical grounding for the work without being making an extraordinary contribution.
The 2003 theatrical version differs slightly from 2001; certain comic aspects are streamlined or changed without significantly affecting the setting. In his adaptation and staging of Los sobrinos del capitán Grant Paco Mir has made an authentic work of music theatre - just like that!
© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2003