Cast: Alicia Amo (Lucrecia), Giulia Semenzato (Tulia/Octavia), Natalie Pérez (Colatino), Judit Subirana (Laureta), Los Elementos and chorus, d. Alberto Miguélez Rouco
Glossa GCD 923525 [2-CD, 110:00]
Reviewing José de Nebra’s Vendado es Amor, no es ciego a couple of years ago, I hoped that we’d soon be hearing more from Los Elementos and their conductor Alberto Miguélez Rouco. Good things come to those who wait, and here is something very special indeed – the premiere issue of de Nebra’s fourth complete surviving zarzuela, and the last to be recorded, Donde hay violencia, no hay culpa (‘Where there is violence, there is no blame’, 1744). A variant of that line may be familiar from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, where it is spoken by the heroine’s husband, Collatinus; and here indeed is a Spanish baroque setting of the tragedy, to a punchy, proto-feminist text in two acts by Nicolás González Martínez (1708?-1773), who later replaced José de Cañizares as court librettist. The result is exciting and entertaining music theatre, brilliantly served by the performers.
As with de Nebra’s other zarzuelas, only a few characters sing: Lucrecia, her husband Colatino, his sister Tulia (initially engaged to the rapacious Sextus Tarquinius) and the housemaid Laureta. All four were written for leading soprano singer-actresses at Madrid’s royal court, while the other seven roles – including Sextus and his father King Tarquin – were spoken. Given this imbalance, Rouco’s pragmatic decision to dispense with the dialogue for home listening seems justified, especially as the zarzuela’s sequence of da capo arias, ensembles, choruses and interpolated instrumental numbers reflects the story by itself. Any spoken narration would have held up the action to little purpose. For though the arias offer moments of reflection in opera seria mode, there is nothing static about their music, which has the imaginative, emotional variety needed to carry the music drama.
As in his other zarzuelas, de Nebra stands apart in several ways from those Italian and German contemporaries intent on providing songbird material. His dramatic ensembles are impassioned and driven to a degree which can stand comparison with Handel, or even Mozart’s classical operas. Here the ‘Aria a 3’ which provides the first act finale is outstanding, pitting Colatino’s conflict between love and duty against his wife’s fears for her honour, and his sister’s fierce calls for revenge against the duplicitous Tarquins. The Act 2 ‘seguidillas’ for Lucrecia and her husband is equally urgent and memorable melodically, and shows de Nebra once again breaking with convention (as in Iphigenia) by using the popular form in a tragic, aristocratic context. Two extended comedy arias for the ‘graciosa’ (peasant comedienne), bolstered by Martínez’s pungent texts, offer something very distinctive, mixing ‘alhambrismo’ musical gestures with a conversational style moving easily from spoken declamation to mocking, laughing coloratura, while stretching da capo conventions to bursting point.
All this comes vividly to life in Judit Subirana’s captivating performance; for though her earthy Laureta can talk easily of ‘bajar los calzones’ (‘dropping your knickers’) this young singer also boasts a personal, beautifully-produced mezzo-soprano to support her ability to project and colour the text. Nor are the other three sopranos left in the shade, despite being perhaps a mite similar in tone and timbre. Alicia Amo’s forthright heroine is moving in the pain and rage of her final, confessional recitative and aria, its flute obligati suggesting Lucrecia’s mental despair. The heavier mezzo of Natalie Pérez is well-suited to Colatino’s vacillations, notably in a pair of reflective ‘simile’ arias devoted respectively to tigers and lambs (the latter bleating pitifully in de Nebra’s pert orchestration). Giulia Semenzato projects Tulia’s vengeful arias with haughty venom, showing a gentler side of her vocal personality in the lilting ‘seguidillas’ written for her rival Octavia in a 1748 revival. This is presented in a valuable appendix, together with other variants and the repeated choruses omitted from the main sequence.
Rouco’s direction inspires Los Elementos to playing of lively freedom and strong character, the strings using subtle hints of portamento, the brass blaring and outspoken, without causing the least suspicion of unbalance to Glossa’s clear recording. Tempi are right, important dynamic contrasts marked but not overdone, allowing de Nebra’s instrumentation its full part in the drama. The short choruses, adding three extra ‘tiples’ and three tenors to the four principals, are immaculately done. The conductor’s scrupulously detailed notes specify all the sources for his edition and the zarzuela’s performing history, while conveying huge enthusiasm for its quality. His care adds to the international appeal of an important set, which also boasts the full Spanish sung texts with buoyant English translations. Let’s hope yet more theatre scores by José de Nebra may turn up. Meanwhile in this rousing performance, his Lucrecia zarzuela is by no means put in the shade by Britten’s artful successor.
Los Elementos and their conductor will be performing Donde hay violencia, no hay culpa – sensibly renamed La violación de Lucrecia – at Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela in March-April 2023, though with a different cast and with Rosa Montero’s narration delivered by the Goya Award-winning actress, Emma Suárez. Meanwhile, this excellent Glossa CD set brings a superb work back into the light of day, with thrilling success.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2022