Sorozábal · Romero y Shaw
In April 1936 Barcelona's Teatro Tívoli mounted the premiere of Pablo Sorozábal's most representative or, if you will, characteristic zarzuela, La tabernera del puerto. In Professor Suárez Pajares's Teatro de la Zarzuela programme article La última gran zarzuela (The last great zarzuela) he suggests that today we can state unequivocally that the opening was on Wednesday April 6th, and not on other dates previously suggested, differing by as much as a month with respect to the truth. Indeed La tabernera has continued to be enveloped in a fabulous - even tragic - fog for more than sixty years: not only this opening date but also, of course, its first presentation in Madrid - which is also discussed without prejudice or taboo in the article.
In 2006, 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the 2nd Spanish Republic, much has been said of times remembered, worthy and inevitable recollections from all those who in some way believed in or dreamed about the modern democracy Spain might have been, and which the stroke of the Civil War tore for ever. Suárez Pajares finally reveals publicly, without fear or fable, who was behind the Madrid plot against La tabernera [ed. above all Federico Moreno Torroba] and how it was contrived. It's no trivial matter that today we can fearlessly discuss these details concerning Sorozábal, seeing that the man from San Sebastian is one of the figures from zarzuela around whom more or less false speculation has circulated throughout the late 20th century. The Teatro de la Zarzuela forges a living memorial to Don Pablo, offering to the public the possibility of knowing the truth without complications or inconsistency. ¹
150 years on, the theatre on Calle Jovellanos has lighted on a work that, although conventional and programmed countless times, is memorially recorded within its very walls - and quite possibly within the minds of all we Spaniards who love Music with a capital M, who love the poetry and lucid formal perfection locked up within the seductive bars of La tabernera del puerto. Congratulations for their choice ... and whilst I'm on the subject let me recall that since 1979, before the present writer was even born, we've been waiting for the premiere of Sorozábal's opera Juan José, the maestro's favourite child. No place has greater right, nor greater obligation nowadays than the Teatro de la Zarzuela to mount this opera based on Dicenta's celebrated play. Enough said.
Luis Olmos, the Teatro's director, reserved for himself the staging of this revival of La tabernera. Let me say straight away that his work has been commendably sensitive, an intelligent concept very different from the plethora of Taberneras mounted nowadays all over Spain. From any live staging at the Teatro de la Zarzuela something can be gleaned, great or small, but we can be assured that finally they've begun to present shows suitably designed within the theatrical language of the 21st century, attractive to the general public and assuring continuity by increasing each time the numbers of younger people (not present in zarzuela productions by those 2nd, 3rd or 9th division regional companies which visit Madrid every spring and summer).
In this Tabernera we find ourselves closer than usual to its time of writing. Maria Luisa Engel's richly attractive costumes, especially Marola's, had a distinct flavour of the period, though inevitably infused with the magic of graphic books through which Olmos creates the spectacle. Tintin, Victor Mora's El Capitán Trueno, The Maltese Falcon these classic visual styles inspired the artistic and technical team to make a Tabernera at once very real, and very fantastic - and is not that, precisely, Cantabreda? In this sense we might say that we are presented with a staging extremely faithful to the spirit of the work which would convince even the most classical-minded zarzueleros, but, as always this has been debated by critics and in discussions amongst those who comprise the little world of zarzuela. As for me, I think we've been given a concept that freshens the face of one of those zarzuelas most often staged; and that, perhaps for this reason, it does not offer much that's new.
Coloratura soprano María José Moreno has been admired wherever she sings, and she won over this Madrid audience with an impeccable interpretation of her second act romanza. At those moments where the low vocal register requires serious support, a firm mezza voce or impeccable diction, she comes up short (the fight with the fishwives, the love dúo). Compared with her Albert Montserrat's Leandro showed up unfavourably. His voice throughout was nasal in tone, fragile at the break and with doubtful legato. The public responded warmly to No puede ser (the Kraus romanza par excellence) but this was not a memorable interpretation. Reviewing his repertoire it's surprising to read that so questionable a voice dares to tackle Tosca, Butterfly or Le Villi... a reflection maybe on the crisis for lyric-spinto tenors?
The character offered most possibilities is Juan de Eguía, a soul in whom ferocity and tenderness are intermingled in strange symbiosis. Enrique Baquerizo managed to move the audience in this regard, once again showing that he knows how to command the stage. His two appearances in the third act were fine, although vocally somewhat limited, opaque and occluded in tone to conserve his resources. High notes had to be cut short and chorus support made available to relieve his breathing in Chíbiri, chíbiri. Baquerizo, conscious of the fact, makes up for it by offering the best he can, albeit something hardly acceptable for a theatre of the stature of La Zarzuela. A very unfortunate piece of casting, as much for vocal reasons as for its reflection of the musical policy of the theatre.
As for the supporting roles, I must express admiration for the equally unanimously celebrated performances of Pilar Moral as Abel and Marta Moreno as Antigua. The former created as simple a romantic boy as could be wished, marked by good taste throughout, showing in her limited musical opportunities the beauty of her voice. Marta Moreno's Antigua was more tender than sly, making us laugh and cry together. Conscious of the dramatic potential of the character she decided not to hide the [ed. alcoholic!] terrors of Antigua's situation in spite of the exquisite, poetic patina of Romero and Fernández Shaw's verse. Unique, and quite different from other antiguas we have previously seen or heard.
Passing to the "ugly sex" I'd pick out Ismael Fritschis Chinchorro and Aurelio Puente's Ripalda, both comedic and perfectly integrated within Olmos' conception of the tragicomic libretto. Abel García, too, was an ideally convincing Verdier, more Captain Haddock than anything, and his role though brief was much applauded.
To complete the roster I'll just add that the chorus sang efficiently, although out of sync in certain passages with the orchestral support. This was discreetly shaped by Manuel Galduf, though he didn't manage to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities so flavoursome a score offers to such an experienced theatre conductor. In the boat scene, one of the most interesting in the score, the orchestra proudly surpassed itself, but in the lighter numbers - such as the comedy terceto and dúo - one might say that they passed muster. Do the musicians of the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid enjoy playing zarzuela?
"En un país de fábula..." called Cantabreda, and at a time full of love and hate as the 1936 in which this Tabernera is set, between magic and reality, this aesthetic rhapsody from the artist in Olmos marks the whole year of this man of theatre's tenure. The aficionados have long awaited this season, every bit as symbolic as the one which is to come. We have not been cheated. We won't be cheated.
© Enrique Mejías García
¹ In his autobiography Mi vida y mi obra Pablo Sorozábal gave new and substantial details on that much-debated Madrid first night. Now, thanks to Javier Suárez Pajares' researches, we can find out the detailed truth and face it without shame. We could do with a definitive, scientifically ordered published study of Sorozábal and his work from the perspective of modern musicology.