When is an opera really a zarzuela? The distinctions have always been misty, and most of the time the debate is about as relevant as working out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Here, however, the question obviously hung in the composers mind, as he strove to turn his highly popular 2-act zarzuela into a regulation 3-act opera española; and not the least valuable feature of this much-anticipated Auvidis issue is Maria Encina Cortizo Rodríguez introduction, with its splendidly full account of the transformation, its gains and losses, as well as a full and sensible guide to the musical qualities of this final version. The quotations from the contemporary criticisms of Antonio Peña y Goñi are particularly revealing, and give a real sense of the historical importance of Arrietas work.
Sad, then, that the impact of Rodríguez essay is weakened by the feeble English translation by the usual Auvidis culprit, at times - like the libretto - rendered incomprehensible without reference to the original Spanish text. One example only: where Rodríguez intends "After this Brindisi, a trio for Marina, Jorge and Roque with melodies in Italianate style delights the ears of the listeners", we get this bizarre farrago - "After this toast, a trio of Marina, Jorge and Roque with melodies of an italianized style recreate the sounds of the listeners". The prosecution rests. Auvidis is in danger of spoiling the ship for a happorth of tar.
Which brings us neatly back to Marina itself, and the new recording. First and foremost, it must be said that this is much the soundest musical text of the opera to appear. The restoration of the heroines last scene cavatina, and excision of the infamous flute/soprano cadenza, ripped off without much alteration from Donizettis Lucia, give the conclusion of the opera an integrity it lacks in all the alternative recorded versions. The orchestra plays particularly well, especially in the exquisitely melancholy Prelude to Act 3 with its lapping rhythms and delicately floated horn solo. The chorus and comprimario singers give pleasure, singing strongly and displaying musical subtlety where that is called for, under the firm but sensitive direction of Pérez. The Auvidis recording is marvellously full, fair and clean.
Why then the lingering sense of disappointment? Some of this comes from the work itself. Arrieta couldnt quite make up his mind whether he wanted a lightweight romantic zarzuela, or a heavyweight Italian opera, and the result is not entirely satisfactory, despite many passages of great beauty. Some of the concerted numbers in particular register as horribly banal imitations of Donizetti or Verdi, and real individuality only emerges when Arrieta Goes Spanish, as in the seguidillas and tango-habañera sequence of the last act.
Some of the disappointment, however, is down to the stellar cast that Auvidis chose to grace the work. Maria Bayo sings with her customary warm tone, immaculate coloratura and intelligence - though whether this last is appropriate for one of the most psychologically opaque heroines ever to blunder across the operatic stage might be open to debate. Is this really Bayos part? By her standards, tuning isnt always irreproachable, tonal range is limited to the point of blandness, and there is even a suspicion of shrillness at the top of the range.
Alfredo Kraus has been playing Jorge for over forty years, and miraculous though his management of waning powers undoubtedly is, he falls sadly short of his 1960s assumption - available on Montilla - in too many places. Jorges first appearance has something in common with the heros entrance in Otello, and Kraus sadly no longer has the sheer vocal guns to cope with it - we have to go back to Hipolito Lazaro in 1929 to hear just how overwhelming this moment can be. Juan Pons sings efficiently as the refreshingly cynical but dramatically dispensable Roque, without adding much in the way of verbal illumination. The best singing comes from Enrique Baquerizo, as Marinas boorish bass fiancé Pascual - firm, musical and fully alive. Its a pity Arrieta gave the characters original Act 2 Serenade to Roque, but there we are.
All in all, although this isnt quite up to the standards of the best in Auvidis invaluable zarzuela series, there is much here to be grateful for. It is better played and recorded than the reliable BMG-Alhambra set under Frühback de Burgos - though his lovers (Victoria Canale and Jaime Aragall) boast more in the way of vocal charm. Above all, it gives us for the first time a satisfactory musical text of Arrietas flawed but highly attractive maritime romance, and as such is a "must buy" for anyone interested in Spanish opera - or zarzuela!
© Christopher Webber 1999