As an Englishman teetering on the European brink, there are many things right now making me envious of my Spanish friends – not least the passion I see with which they honour their great artists. A glance around the internet reveals the plethora of family ‘shrines’ to great zarzuela composers, librettists and singers; but last year’s 150th birthday tributes to Lucrecia Arana, perhaps the pre-eminent Spanish tiple (soprano) from the late 19th and early 20th century, were of special quality. Making sure that this great singer will not be forgotten, her descendants have produced work of real value for historians of género chico zarzuela, while taking care to reach out to a broader, modern public previously unaware of her existence.
Arana’s partner was the celebrated sculptor Mariano Benlliure (1862–1947); and the Fundación Mariano Benlliure (whose Vice-President and Director is the tiple’s great-granddaughter Lucrecia Enseñat Benlliure) celebrated Arana’s life in a variety of events including the concert series vividly described here by the mezzo soprano Anna Tonna. The year culminated with a substantial exhibition at Logroño’s Museo de la Rioja (17 October – 17 December 2017), accompanied by this handsome catalogue book and CD.
Lucretia Arana (1867–1927) was a star of the Madrid stage from the mid-1880’s until her retirement in 1907/8, still at the height of her powers. Her fame was huge. Juan Palono’s 1893 tribute in La Caricatura (quoted in the book) tells us why:
She enjoyed success in a wide variety of genres, from operatic leads such as Dolores in Bretón’s opera to revues and light one-act sainetes by composers such as Apollinaire Brull, Amadeo Vives and the youthful José Serrano. Famously excelling in ‘breeches roles’ (for which Benlliure often designed her costumes personally) such as El husar de la guardia by Vives and Gerónimo Giménez, where Mathilde dresses as a young hussar to impersonate her own brother, Arana was most closely associated with Manuel Fernández Caballero. He created several magnificent roles for her, including Pilar in Gigantes y Cabezudos and – most famously – Carlos in La viejecita who famously disguises himself as the titular ‘Old Lady’ in order to surreptitiously woo his fiancée. In a gender-bending fiesta worthy of Shakespeare, a woman played a man playing a woman. Simple!
The exhibition catalogue boasts three substantial essays, starting with an engaging overview of the vicissitudes of Spanish history during Arana’s life by Joaquín Turina Gómez. Then comes a sympathetically revealing account of that life by Lucrecia Enseñat Benlliure, quoting from her great-grandmother’s diaries amongst other family sources. Last comes a chapter focusing on her qualities as a singer-actress, written by the doyen of Spanish vocal musicologists Joaquín Martín de Sagarmínaga. He has much of value to say about the 14 tracks on the accompanying CD, which presents a good mixture of Arana’s recordings from 1904 to 1914, seven years after her retirement – though she had kept her voice in fine shape, for occasional appearances at charity galas. Indeed, due to technical advances during that decade, I think the later recordings give us a better idea of the singer-actress’s mercurial magic than the comparatively sombre and cautious 1904 tracks.
The book’s longest section is the Chronological Catalogue by Francisco Javier Osés Sola. Detailing productions in which Arana took part with press comments, this has inestimable value for aficionados, giving us an intriguing picture of Madrid zarzuela in its apogeal years as the singer rockets to stardom at Teatro de la Zarzuela. Osés Sola provides appendices, including a list of Arana’s 24 ‘breeches’ roles. There is also a bibliography, a complete and detailed discography, and an index.
Leaving the best till last, the great body of the book is given over to high-quality reproductions of many visual exhibits, a judicious mixture of artworks and publicity postcards of Arana’s popular roles. With a leading artist as partner, little wonder Arana’s life with Benlliure and their son was narrated in a vibrant series of sculptures, paintings and swift caricatures – not only by Benlliure himself, but also by eminent friends and colleagues such as Joaquín Sorolla. Amongst many outstanding exhibits capturing the singer’s classically bold features and intelligence, perhaps Sorolla’s superb 1906 Velasquez-like painting Lucrecia Arana y su hijo is the most powerful; but Benlliure’s own intricately-painted fan, given to Arana at their ‘betrothal’ in 1896, is surely the most touching. Benlliure already had a wife, from whom he failed to obtain a divorce despite pleas to Rome: the fact that nobody in Madrid’s artistic or political circles took offence at this ‘irregular’ union is testament to Arana’s respected character as much as her popularity.
Lucrecia Arana (1867-1927), Tiple-contralto de zarzuela, musa de artistas is an outstanding achievement, not only as a souvenir of the Logroño exhibition, but also as a significant contribution to our understanding of a great singer in her time and place. That the place was Madrid, at the height of its género chico glories, makes this book all the more invaluable.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net 2018,
Adventures with Arana (Anna Tonna)