The headline here must be to pay homage to Teatro de la Zarzuela’s management, for their determination to get zarzuela back on stage for a paying audience, at a time when Covid remains virulent in Madrid. With the aid of masks, screens and social distancing, the company has mounted a full production; while a reduced orchestra, soloists and chorus – working under the skilled baton of Miguel Ángel Gómez-Martínez – deliver the best musical values of the house. Eight hundred miles away in locked-down London, I felt privileged to see the evening streamed.
But there’s a bullet to bite. Watching this travesty of La tempranica, with a degraded plot and Julián Romea’s dialogue ditched in favour of desultory chats between Gerónimo Giménez and Manuel de Falla (ironically supported by Romea himself as a comic flunkey), I wonder what the management think they are fighting for? When they go home at night, would they employ cardboard rhetoric in place of spoken conversations with their dear ones? Would they be afraid that dialogue might sully the music of their home lives? Damas y caballeros, these double standards will not do. Even in the waning era of the auteur-director, no good comes from treating a zarzuela’s musical score as sacrosanct while chucking the hablados into the rubbish bin.
Under the desk
In any case, Alberto Conejero’s replacement scenario seems scribbled in his sleep. The recently graduated de Falla (oddly cast, with the veteran actor Carlos Hipólito uttering the idealistic thoughts of a 24 year old) pleads with zarzuela’s grandee Giménez (Jesús Castejon) to listen to an early draft of La vida breve – superior music of course, because it’s a proper opera. Giménez tells him in Netflix-biopic style to forget Spain and head to Paris, where the real art is, before launching into a sour diatribe against 1900 Madrid’s descent into artistic degeneracy: ‘Zarzuela is dead, Manuel. All you get nowadays is light comedy, revues and sex shows’.
Yet irony of ironies, right there under his desk lurks a bound copy of La gatita blanca, written with Vives in 1905 (but never mind chronology!), one of the most tasty and politically sharp of those tacky ‘sex shows’. I know of no evidence to suggest that in 1900 Giménez thought zarzuela was dead, or that he thought himself any less of an artist for composing ínfima zarzuelas, then at the cutting edge of Spanish musico-theatrical modernism. Yet here Conejero – a writer at today’s cutting edge – is bizarrely content to parrot old-fashioned, received ideas about dead zarzuela. And needless to say, his maundering lecture runs longer than Romea’s dialogues: if there's a smell of corpses here, we can't blame La tempranica’s original librettist.
This fake history conveys that La tempranica only has value as an avatar of La vida breve, which is untrue. Though admittedly, when Giménez engaged in yet another grumble about how zarzuela in 1900 was being totally ‘disrespected’, I wanted to shout (in pantomime style) ‘behind you!’ In truth, he couldn’t have done better than taken 2020’s proceedings as a perfect example of the disrespect he was talking about. Which brings me to the theatrical dismemberment of La tempranica’s musical torso…
Lines of resistance
La Zarzuela has yet again taken the line of least resistance, by choosing to re-employ an old-school, international ‘name’, averse to working with that mixture of sung and spoken drama which is central to Madrid’s repertoire. When there are so many innovative, young Spanish directors around, who would give their eye teeth to work on a major staging of La tempranica – especially with the challenge of reduced resources – it is disappointing that the Theatre has turned again to the veteran Giancarlo del Monaco. He last worked here in 2016, fronting the glamorous, operatic declension of Las golondrinas which was questioned on zarzuela.net by Mario Lerena, as revealing ‘uncritical inertia and even condescension towards a group of works and composers who are too often presumed to be in need of correction, enhancement – or diminution’.
Seeing La tempranica’s complex music theatre likewise boiled down to trite operatic melodrama, I can only echo Lerena’s fears as to ‘inertia’ and ‘condescension’. Perhaps del Monaco would have been more at home with Torroba’s 1930 reworking of Giménez’s score as conventional, through-written opera. Instead, he reinvents Romea’s young and impetuous María as a blowsy gypsy queen, callously cast off by a mustachio-twirling, tweed-suited, elderly aristocratic drunk. After a sadistic torture session in a sort of Cuban-style Santería ritual, she is squashed to death under mounds of rubble – just as the zarzuela itself is squashed flat under mounds of histrionic muck.
Melodrama might (or might not) be OK for such artistic small beer as Pagliacci, but it subjects La tempranica to a gross distortion. In the original, María – just like Lena in Fontane’s contemporary novel Irrungen, Wirrungen – accepts what the social divide has done to her relationship with Luis and determines to get on with her life, while proudly proclaiming her personal, Romany identity to the world. Identity: that’s what the hammered repetition of her unforgettable leitmotif is about, something much more interestingly modern than del Monaco’s gooey Guignol. Removing Romea’s dialogue is bad enough: more depressing still, is the stage director’s deafness to the contemporary resonance in Giménez’s score.
With the treatment of the principal characters so crudely posterized – Grabié’s role is reduced to two minutes, skipping on for his ‘Tarantula’ song without any rhyme or reason – little wonder that the central Romany scenes themselves, with their astonishing musical content, fall so flat. For example: the whole point of the betrothal ceremony is lost, if Luis and his English friend Mr James aren’t there as tourists to watch the ‘ethnic fiesta’, and if María isn’t faced with her Gypsy-fiancé Miguel for ‘Sierras de Granada’, pretending to honour him while really addressing her wealthy ex-lover. Without these tensile perspectives, music and text make no sense. And is that spine-tingling piece of musical semiotics, as the wild gypsy tanguillo gives way to the middle-class, urban Waltz of the Granada finale, reflected in the staging? No. The Santería devotees simply continue to pile rubble onto María. Is there a dramaturge in the house?
The singer and the song
The production shares its style with del Monaco’s La vida breve, first seen in Valencia about a decade ago, and alternating with La tempranica at Teatro de la Zarzuela under the banner title ‘Granada’. I reviewed the Valencia production elsewhere [for Opera] and won’t revisit it here. Suffice it to say that both shows depict sadistic behaviour towards women, in macabre rituals smokily lit by infra-red lighting which promotes a sense of hopeless gloom.
The performers do their best to inject some theatrical vitality, led by Nancy Fabiola Herrera’s indefatigable María. Her massively mature soprano is in good shape, and she delivers ‘Sierras de Granada’ with grand emotional focus. It’s frustrating that a wider range of emotions (such as we get on disc from María Bayo or Teresa Berganza) wasn’t required of this admirable singer. I am a confirmed fan of the bass Rubén Amoretti, who does everything asked of him by the director to twist Don Luis into a whisky-swilling, cigar-smoking old roué: but in the great duet with María, his mahogany bass hardly suits Giménez’s writing for lyric baritone. Ruth González brings credible boyishness to bear in Grabié’s famously catchy number, at some risk of tightening her pleasant lyric soprano and distorting its quality.
The solo Gypsies and flamenco Cantaor (Jesús Méndez) are excellent, as is the Coro Titular del Teatro de la Zarzuela – in scintillating form as ever, under its director Antonio Fauró. Down in the screened pit, Gómez-Martínez is completely on top of Giménez’s tricky cross-rhythms and interlocking planes of choral sound. He allows his soloists plenty of space, and his Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid plays Miquel Ortega’s seamless reduction of the original instrumentation with zest and brilliance. Musically, there was little wrong with this traversal of one of zarzuela’s most influential scores.
Yet to be painfully honest, this was not a good evening, despite the moving circumstances. A directorial touch at the end summed it up: after María throws out her final challenge to the world – ‘¡Tempranica me llaman!’ – she subsides under the rubble, letting fall a red camellia. Perhaps del Monaco would rather have been doing La traviata … but never mind the flowery cliché. As the curtain falls, the actor playing Julián Romea (Juan Matute) steps forward to reclaim and cradle it. I’m sure this was not the intention, but it almost seems as if the librettist himself were ruefully contemplating the remnants of his own, shattered text. It would be good to see a director and management who believed in that text, at least trying to kiss the wilted bloom back to life.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2020