El chaleco blanco

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated December 21st 1999

Mail me or visit my Homepage

El chaleco blanco
by Federico Chueca
libretto by Miguel Ramos Carrión

® recommended recording

El chaleco blanco, a "lyric-comedy episode" first performed at the Teatro Felipe in Madrid on 26th June 1890, is a classic example of genero chico - a small-scale musical play in one act, centred on the life and work of the Madrileños.

El chaleco blanco, souvenir fan - photo from the collection of Cynthia Fendel, with her permission
El chaleco blanco - commemorative souvenir fan

Chueca, working without his long-term musical collaborator Valverde, produced a scintillating diamond of a score. The nine short musical numbers form a kind of vocal suite taking in many of Madrid’s favourite dances - polka, seguidillas, pasodoble and mazurka. No work of Chueca’s captures the atmosphere of its time and place more perfectly, a Madrid where only a lottery ticket can make all the difference between happiness and abject misery.

Carrión’s witty little farce had an original genesis. A group of writers were dining together one evening when it was suggested that they should draw a random title from a hat. Anyone who didn’t produce a playscript within a month had to stand a supper to the rest. Spared such intractable gems as "Sleeves and Hoods" and "Pelota in the Attic", Carrion drew El chaleco blanco - "The White Waistcoat". Somehow all the writers managed to produce something within the thirty days, but only El chaleco blanco has stood the test of time.

Scene 1 - The dining room of a small lodging house, run by Perez and his wife Doña Casta. After a lively Preludio the curtain rises to reveal the master of the house polishing boots, humming as he works (Polka: "del limpiabotas".) He chats to Rosa, who has come to collect the day’s laundry, until Doña Casta admonishes her for using too much soap on the clothes and sending them back in rags. Rosa leaves with the clothes. One of the lodgers, Don Quintín, sneaks in and explains to Perez that he has borrowed some of the other residents’ better clothes, for a meeting he has with an official to secure himself a job. Perez’s daughter Tecla comes on the scene with her lover, another lodger, David - a young musician of limited talents and prospects, who also happens to be way behind with the rent. If only he could be composing beautiful fantasias, instead of having to play rubbish like La Gran Via all the time, all would be well. Perez, unlike Doña Casta, has taken to the young man - but points out that it will be the worse for him if his wife catches them billing and cooing like this (Terceto-Mazurka: "Tengo muche que contarte".)

A third lodger, the fat Don Ventura, complains to Perez that his frockcoat has vanished - another of Don Quintín’s borrowings. Meanwhile, Doña Casta plans to throw David out to make room for a possible rich suitor to Tecla, but all plans are thrown into turmoil by David’s reappearance with astounding news - he has won a fortune in el gordo, "the fat one", Madrid’s biggest lottery. That is, he will have, when he retrieves the lucky ticket from his white waistcoat. Mass consternation ensues when it is discovered that his white waistcoat is apparently one of the articles Rosa has taken away to wash, and there is a mad scramble for hats and coats as they all rush off in search of the ticket. Their Quinteto: "Vamos todos, vamos presto," features an extended quote from Manrico’s "di quella pira" (Verdi’s Il Trovatore) - the difference being that young David is hastening to rescue, not his mother from the flames, but his lottery ticket from the soap.

Scene 2 - the banks of the Manzanares River, near the laundry. Rosa and the other laundresses are going about their business with a will (Coro Seguidillas: "Pa sortijas y gracia".) They stop work to buy their lunch from the baker in another animated ensemble Mazurka: "!El bollero!" (the so-called "Underwear Mazurka"). This leads into a lively Pasodoble: "Rataplan," led by a Drum-Corporal. Eventually David and the rest breathlessly reach the river - only to find that Rosa isn’t in her usual place. By the time they find her it is too late - the clothes are already in the washing lye, and all seems lost.

Don Quintín, fresh from a highly satisfactory meeting with the Official, is surprised to find no response to his good news. Ventura spots his frockcoat, and takes it back, revealing beneath it - a white waistcoat. It is David’s, and the whole company set on Quintín and rip off the garment - from which David triumphantly extracts the winning lottery ticket. David gets his Tecla, and all ends happily with an orchestral reminder of the Seguidillas.

[Back to top of page]