COMPARATIVE CD REVIEW
Serrano's 1929 Slice of Life in the Perfume Factory has an insidious sticking power. Despite the fact that his penultimate zarzuela only contains about 20 minutes of music, the composer manages to suggest an operatic scope and depth of passion which is more potent than the perfume brewed by the leading characters. Its brief running time can be the only reason that Los Claveles takes second billing on each of these CD's. Musically, it packs a very direct punch indeed, and each of these performances demonstrate its raw power in ways that others - including the much-loved Zafiro recording with Dolores Pérez and José Picaso under Enrique Navarro - don't approach.
The Domingo/Berganza set on BMG Alhambra has been the staple recommendation since it first appeared nearly thirty years ago - it remains the most recent recording. The huge contribution of the two stars is to bring out more fully than before the Pucciniesque operatic strength inherent in Serrano's score. The key to any recording of Los Claveles has to be Rosa's scena "Que te importa que no venga", one of the warhorses of the repertoire, and Berganza delivers it with regal tonal largesse, set off by unparalleled musical sensitivity. Directly after this - the Intermedio is cut - Domingo sounds a trifle penny-plain in "Mujeres", though the beauty and strength of his baritonal voice are fully evident. Their duet is verismo on the grand scale, the supporting pair sing their number neatly, and García-Navarro lends a large-boned amplitude to proceedings wholly in keeping with the performance's operatic bias. The transfer to CD exhibits some distortion under pressure, but this is still much more cleanly recorded than the rival versions.
Still, this is zarzuela. And there are qualities particular to zarzuela which the Alhambra set plays down, or misses. By the side of Maria Espinalt and Pablo Civil in the early LP recording on EMI Hispavox the vocal acting of Alhambra's stellar singers seems generalised. If only Espinalt had been caught earlier in her short career. By the early 1950's she hasn't many shots left in the vocal locker, and those she musters in "Que te importa" tend to an acid shrillness which is difficult to take, even from this spitfire of a character. Civil is an unexpected treat. His "Mujeres" is wittily turned, louche and flexibly delicate - a reminder that the role was written for the epicurean vocal personality of Tino Folgar. Espinalt is slightly more secure in the duet, and Rafael Ferrer brings out a sunny, flashing wit that is lacking in García-Navarro's comparatively unsmiling seriousness. Ferrer makes much of the Intermedio, and orchestral sound and recording are acceptable, if shallow.
Espinalt's performance is the bridge to a lost world that we can savour fully in the 1930-ish recording made under an anonymous conductor (the composer?) in Blue Moon's reissue of a complete set made very soon after the work's 1929 premiere. If Blue Moon are coy about providing any details about recording dates, that is the only coy thing about this extraordinary, no-holds barred performance. Amparo Romo was not the original actress/singer of the role, but you'd never guess it from this visceral assumption, which goes directly to the heart of Rosa's jealousy, frustrated intelligence and sensitivity. "Que te importa" is a roller-coaster of emotions, gypsy appogiaturas and all, much magnified by the inclusion of the bitchy verbal exchange between the two principals just before the climax. Not subtle, simply unforgettable. Simón's elegance is an object lesson in "Mujeres", though he misses Civil's wit; and though it's hardly impeccably sung, the duet here has moments of verbal and vocal point which put the later sets in the shade. The subsidiary roles are in the perfect hands of Albiach and Palacios, the Intermedio is included - together (uniquely) with the brief final, words spoken - or rather hurled - over a further repeat of Rosa's big tune.
Berganza's imperious Rosa, Ferrer's glinting reading of the score, Civil's witty Fernando - all these will be missed. However, and assuming recording quality isn't important, the Blue Moon reissue has to be clear first choice, especially as it's the only one which is really complete. Blue Moon's transfer is good, and in Amparo Romo this set boasts a Rosa who is, histrionically, in a different league from her rivals. The coupling, Leoz's rarely heard La Duchesa del Candil, is intriguing, and altogether this has to be rated one of the essential issues in Blue Moon's serie lírica.