Black, el payaso
One of the hallmarks of good music theatre is its ability to transform itself, to adapt to what can be done, rather than tradition dictates ought to be done. I expect that most people reading this would agree that Pablo Sorozábal’s Black, el payaso is very good music theatre indeed; but they might be surprised to find such a famously big, bow-wow piece – treasured in Spain for its dazzling complexity, emotional largesse and bitingly sweet-sour orchestrations – adapting so well to London’s small but perfectly-formed Cervantes Theatre, with its tiny company of five singers, two instrumentalists – and one boy narrator, evoking the traditional ‘trujamán’ (‘translator’) of Spanish Golden Age puppet theatre. Whatever’s lost hardly matters, besides what’s gained by the intensity and intelligence of Paula Paz’s production and Ricardo Gosalbo’s musical direction. At its heart, this Black is an assured statement of its composer’s brilliance, still too little recognised outside Spain.
I was fortunate to see the first night of the show’s revival, following its initial run (last month) during the alternative operatic Grimeborn Festival, at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre. On a personal note, I’ve been moved to read the enthusiastic notices of that Arcola premiere. In contrast with many reviews of London’s previous zarzuela sighting – Sorozábal’s The Girl with the Roses at the Bloomsbury Theatre, twenty-three years ago – today’s British reviewers waste much less space trying to pigeon-hole Sorozábal’s eternally topical satire about the clown who finds himself running a country. They don’t care whether what they’re seeing is opera, operetta or musical, but simply take the mixture ‘as is’, relishing its combination of sentimental verismo, smiling satire and that fusion of musical styles which yokes Kálmán’s Vienna and Kurt Weill’s Berlin to the emotions and caustic comedy of romantic zarzuela. But just as in 1999, it is good to find nobody bewailing the lack of tourist-trap bulls, fans and flamenco, in a truly Spanish piece which is as international in appeal as Kálman’s Circus Princess or Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins.
Coming to Ignacio García’s adaptation, Anguita’s Ruritanian plot is simplified by the removal of several minor characters, and the not-so-minor character of Baron Orsaya, whose plot functions are effectively merged with the journalist Marat, doubled here with the monarch/pianist Charles Dupont. The decision to perform Black in a mixture of Spanish (for the vocal numbers) and English (for the distilled dialogue and boy’s narration) with alternate surtitles will not have been to all tastes, and normally it wouldn’t have been to mine; but the smooth ease of the transitions and Sorozábal’s use of speech over music somehow melded the two languages, rarely detracting from theatrical flow. The Spanish of the mainly Anglophone cast was impressively idiomatic, while Simon Breden’s translated English dialogue was clear and natural. Only the placing of the boy (the engaging Simon Bundock) and his toy theatre, isolated in a distant corner of the space, led to occasional problems of audibility.
With that exception, Paz’s production succeeded admirably, Caitlin Abbott’s ingenious design using just a few wooden boxes and a heavy scarlet back-curtain to evoke a circus-ring atmosphere, supplemented by the moonlit staircase up to the building’s second floor. Hanging mist and Lucía Sanchez’s hyper-theatrical lighting conjured an air of magic realism, while Guy Common’s commedia makeup and Abbott’s costumes emphasised the shared, clownish illusion of circus and court which lies at the operetta’s heart. An artistic director of the Cervantes, Paz used her own space effectively in a fluid staging dotted with allusions to modern dance theatre as well as the clowns’ music-hall routines, while also bringing out – something new for me – the score’s filmic, pre-war Hollywood flavour. Several of the Arcola critics felt that 90-odd minutes was too long to go without an interval, but I can’t agree: breaking the flow might have broken the spell.
Sorozábal’s score was presented almost completely uncut, his brief choral passages supplied by the five principals, while the trumpet fanfares and revolutionary chorus of the last scene were pre-recorded and kept offstage. Gosalbo’s tireless piano accompaniment was augmented by Elena Jáuregui’s moving violin in ‘The Song of the Steppe’ and the ensuing romantic scenes, while elsewhere she provided those touches of percussion so vital to Sorozábal’s jazzy comedy numbers. Of course we missed his distinctively pungent orchestrations, but boiling the score down to basics worked surprisingly well. The only significant casualty, for me, was Act 2’s ‘¡Ya se encontro!’, that catchy Quartet describing an over-the-top royal wedding procession – remarkably topical, following Queen Elizabeth’s funeral rites the previous day. Reduced to a duet for Catalina and Marat, lacking its klezmer-style clarinet incursions and marche militaire choreography, and provided with an oddly anti-climactic little playout, the music seemed too much a repeat of the couple’s Act 1 number.
The performers took hold of Sorozábal’s glorious vocal opportunities with aplomb. Michael Lafferty-Smith, luscious in lyrical baritonal warmth, was as good as any Spanish singer I’ve heard in the title role, his Act 2 romanza ‘Hacer de un mísero payaso’ providing deep vocal pleasure. As Princess Sofía – the role associated early on with Plácido Domingo’s mother Pepita Embil – Raphaela Papadakis was a strong foil for Lafferty in their duets, her sinewy soprano proving more than a little reminiscent of Embil in her own romanza, ‘Yo, que jamás había sentido’. David Powton’s pleasant light tenor was not fazed by Dupont’s famous czardas ‘Deja la guadaña, segador’, indelibly associated with the voice of Alfredo Kraus but a showstopper here too, given the singer’s own Gypsy tambourine additions for the friss. Giuseppe Pellingra brought an impressively genuine, grainy bass to the table as White, revealed here as the satire’s key figure, in showing how attention to detail brings success in statesmanship as well as on stage. Stepping into the shoes of the stellar comedienne Enriqueta Serrano – Sorozábal’s wife, for whom the flighty Catalina was tailored – is no laughing matter, but there was plenty to enjoy about Juliet Wallace’s outrageous gusto and forthright delivery of the comedy goods.
At the end, as the principals trudged out onto the road again – in a much more downbeat final image than Anguita’s ‘official’ happy ending – the standing ovation from a well-packed auditorium seemed thoroughly deserved. In planing down Black, el payaso to essentials, Gosalbo, Paz and the Cervantes company have been true to Sorozábal, capturing much of his special acerbity and wit, as well as his generous vein of sentimental romance. This production has done a power of good in bringing the composer’s work – not to mention the spirit of Spanish zarzuela – to a new generation of London theatregoers. I hope that this exciting debut will prove to be only the first of many explorations at the Cervantes, of zarzuela’s outstanding repertoire.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2022