El sobre verde
I approached Fundación Guerrero’s latest DVD with some trepidation. After two winners with their 2014/15 Cuenca stagings of El terrible Pérez and La pantomima en escena, was it to be third time unlucky? Would a 1920’s hit revue, with its vastly distant social and sexual mores, be beyond hope today? Would the performers have the necessary star quality? Would the Goddess Fortune desert them?
In a literal sense she doesn’t, because Dame Fortune is here in person as dea ex machina, prime mover and shaker of Jacinto Guerrero’s ‘sainete with specks of revista’, El sobre verde. Nor does she desert them metaphorically. This is the first time Cuenca’s annual Jornadas de zarzuela has revived a major work by the Foundation’s ‘house composer’, and it does him proud. Sadly, it is also the last time for the moment: the ‘Jornadas’ have been cancelled for future years, because of financial difficulties. Beyond that, it shows how antique Spanish revue can be made to work brilliantly in the 21st century, given good stagecraft, musical expertise and – most crucially – an imaginative belief in the work itself.
Enrique Paradas and Joaquín Jiménez wrote the two-act El sobre verde (‘The Green Envelope’) in 1927. The story is simple: ne’er-do-well Don Nicanor wins the Jackpot in Madrid’s Christmas Lottery and spends his two million peseta prize on a trip to the fleshpots of New York, accompanied by his chum Simeón. Running out of cash he returns to Madrid, where he faces the unpleasant prospect of work. This slight plot serves as the vehicle for a chain of dazzling musical numbers by Guerrero, who uses traditional género chico forms including the Caleseras and Chotis for the ‘sainete’ Madrid portions, and a Yankee One-step and Charleston for the New York ‘revue’ – not forgetting a smoochy, Argentine Tangolio (slow tango).
Guerrero even contrives – as Emmerich Kálmán did the following year in The Duchess of Chicago, with added polemic intent – to bring both sides of the Atlantic together, both in a piquant Foxtrot-Gavotte and in the ‘Chotis de las organilleras’, a fascinating fantasy mixture of old-style schottische and new-style jazz counterpoint, as Don Nicanor imagines himself back in Madrid. It’s a catchy and adept score, with at least one toe-tapping hit, the ‘Jackpot March’, which has stood the test of time. The Tangolio and Caleseras strike me as equally memorable, but there isn’t one dull number.
With the exception of some instrumental reprises, this stage version sticks pretty faithfully to the order and contents of Guerrero’s 1927 first night, with the addition of one of the ten extra songs Enrique Mejías García published in Fundación Guerrero’s critical edition – the vivacious ‘Fox-blues: Bombón internacional’, written for the 1934 Madrid revival and well worth its place here. The original finale, an allegorical Pasacalle extolling the charms of the upcoming Barcelona and Seville International Expositions, has sensibly been replaced by the short, hectic ‘Ramperstén’ (a Charleston dedicated to a popular Spanish clown of the time, Rampér) from La orgía dorada, a 1929 revue Guerrero composed with Julián Benlloch.
The most contentious aspect of the musical treatment is conductor Nacho de Paz’s decision to replace Guerrero’s original scoring with his own for jazz band, using the same forces Kurt Weill employed in The Threepenny Opera. In practise this works well, with a (Hawaiian) steel guitar making its presence sharply felt in New York, and no sense of lost authenticity in the Madrid scenes. Importantly, Paz has taken no liberties with Guerrero’s witty counterpoint, which can be heard just as the composer wrote it. Both conducting and playing are pitch-perfect in revista style.
Stage director Alberto Castrillo-Ferrer has also radically reshaped the Paradas / Jiménez libretto. Rather than lazily blue-pencilling dialogue to the bone, he has worked hard to focus it, compressing the number of settings and characters; and while he has rewritten a significant amount, he has retained the original proportion of dialogue to music. He has freshened up the text with some extra jokes and puns, plus a handful of literary and historical allusions which – although perfectly consonant with 1927 – still mean something to Spain ninety years on; and he has added a sub-stratum of comment on Madrid’s golfos (beggars) which was less marked in the original.
Castrillo-Ferrer’s main change is to relocate the first scene, with its beggars outside the theatre where the lottery is to be drawn, to inside, where the prompter allows them to sleep on the stage of Guerrero’s own Teatro Coliseum. Don Nicanor’s lottery win becomes a dream, from which he and his companions awake at the end, to find themselves back in Madrid’s freezing Christmas Eve. Instead of the moralistic figure of Trabajo (Work), the Goddess Fortune presents him with an open-ended future which makes for a more upbeat conclusion – perhaps he will win today’s lottery after all. I particularly liked Castrillo-Ferrer’s defence of life as a dream (some way after Calderón): “What’s most important to humans? Money, no. Love, no. Health, no. Imagination, yes.” Bravo for art!
I am also glad to report that he does blessedly little to emasculate El sobre verde’s strong sexual humour: verde itself contains a double-entendre, meaning ‘sexually close to the bone’ (it once carried the same double meaning in English, as witness the onstage consternation when Miss Prism unthinkingly describes young women as ‘green’ in The Importance of Being Earnest). He leaves the disreputable Don Nicanor’s anti-feminism intact, too, rightly spotting that the joke’s on him, not on the women. Altogether this is a model of how modern adaptation should be done, faithful to the original’s spirit but spruced up to avoid antique stage conventions and topical verbal references which mean nothing today.
Talking of Don Nicanor, much depends on the excellence of the actor holding the show together: Jacobo Dicenta has in abundance the qualities to do the part justice. His charisma, verbal artistry and vocal-physical stamina as the charming old charlatan make his performance entertaining and absorbing throughout. José Luis Alcobendas leads the company around him with a nicely grubby Simeón, and – the large original cast and chorus having been boiled down to just ten – everyone else works with untiring enthusiasm and talent to create a constellation of character roles and vedettes. I must single out Carolina Moncada for her dryly Wagnerian Fortuna, and zarzuela doyenne Lola Casariego’s delicious Head Chocolate in the Foxtrot-Gavotte, where she shows off her still impressive top C.
Castrillo-Ferrer’s staging is economical, with Anna Tusell’s sets aiming at wit rather than spectacle. Arantxa Ezquerro’s impressive array of costumes provides social pointers as well as the necessary glitter. Best of all, Cristina Guadaño has choreographed the show at the right level of period vivacity, lively and elegant rather than needlessly showy. The face-front, boldly exuberant acting style was doubtless a plus point in the theatre, but sometimes threatens to overwhelm the small screen. Almost everything else transfers well to DVD, and the production values are right – down to the fast-flowing English subtitles, which valiantly attempt to convey the essence of some groan-worthy Spanish puns and eye-watering smut.
Fundación Guerrero have brought off the hat trick with extraordinary élan. El sobre verde is yet another eye-opener, a joy for its production as well as Jacinto Guerrero’s scintillating score. In the light of last season’s mix of passable events and car crashes, Teatro de la Zarzuela could do worse than take a look at exactly how the Cuenca team consistently square the circle. Once again their Festival has brought popular lyric theatre to life with style and imagination, and without a trace of condescension, laziness or stupidity. This is one company which clearly believes in what it is doing.
© Christopher Webber, zarzuela.net 2017
Buy DVD (Fundación Guerrero website)