The Auvidis series of recordings, internationally distributed and well marketed, was for many people including me a first entry point to the world of zarzuela. They emerged in swift succession between 1994 and 1997, the ópera española Marina appearing as a pendant two years later. With full sung Spanish texts and English/French translations as well as penetrating, illustrated essays by leading scholars, they set new standards for presentation. Most of the performances, too, went straight to the head of the class.
Since Naïve took over the ailing Auvidis label some years ago, four of the best – La tabernera del puerto, Luisa Fernanda, El barberillo de Lavapiés and Goyescas – have been allowed to drift into at least temporary oblivion. The quartet here have already been reissued singly, so this bargain box is aimed at newcomers and those few aficionados who failed to snap them up in previous incarnations. It’s perhaps dispiriting that they remain the most recent CD accounts, though a 2000 concert performance of Bohemios has appeared on Circulo Digital DVD. With the apparent stalling of DG’s new zarzuela series, we should be grateful that these four are back in slimline format, discs in paper envelopes, and with a chunky booklet containing the original essays plus Angela Buxton’s weirdly incomprehensible English versions, though the Spanish song texts are sadly shorn of the English and French translations and the graphics have gone.
So how do the performances stand up a decade on? Doña Francisquita and La verbena de la Paloma [full review] remain the best available. In the former the Coro de románticos wafts across with uniquely heady perfume, whilst Alfredo Kraus brings a lifetime of experience to the role of Fernando: despite failing vocal powers sheer artistry enables him to conjure up a most moving performance. In La verbena… Plácido Domingo’s Julián is in the same emotional league, and in prime vocal health. María Bayo partners both, and leaves nothing to be desired. She was at her zenith in the mid-1990’s, and neither her Francisquita (with its matchless Canción del ruiseñor) nor her Susana are likely to be surpassed any time soon. With excellent support throughout – Castejón and Amengual even more vivid than I remembered as the old reprobates in the Bretón – a good sense of theatricality engendered by Ros Marbà, and superlative recording, these two sets can claim classic status.
The other two can’t. My original comments on Marina [full review] need no revision. It is particularly sad that this rather than the triumphant Vives set was Kraus’s last complete recorded stage work. With Bayo’s self-conscious intelligence proving a mixed blessing for such an emotionally opaque heroine, only the fact that this is textually the purest version of a third-rate piece stranded halfway between opera and zarzuela, justifies its place in the library. Despite pretty tunes and some shameless pilfering from Verdi, Arrieta’s hotch-potch is as technically ropey as it is unoriginal. It’s as dead as Gounod’s Faust and quite as overdue for damnation.
Bohemios fares much better; but despite a deliciously knowing Cossette from the ubiquitous Bayo, things don’t ever quite catch fire. Luis Lima is a pallid Roberto, too often under the note, and too little contrasted with Santiago S. Jericho’s admirable Víctor. The impressive Carlos Álvarez, in one of his first recordings, makes us sit up and listen to the brief solo in the Coro de Bohemios, but otherwise the temperature fails to rise. No matter. Despite the loss of libretto translations, the box is good value for any newcomer wanting to pick up one decent zarzuela recording, one dud, and two classics.
© Christopher Webber 2008
31 March 2008