Château Margaux / La viejecita
What are we to do with zarzuela…?
We must comfort ourselves with the fact that zarzuela productions remain in circulation, even in these precarious times, and despite the weakness of cultural markets. This one was first mounted at Bilbao’s Teatro Arriaga in 2009, and has since been seen at the Festival Grec de Barcelona, Teatro Campoamor in Oviedo and at Madrid’s Teatros del Canal. The effort involved in putting on any lyric theatre show may only be justified when it is toured and revived, which unfortunately is not usually the case. The inevitably ephemeral nature of theatre can be extremely cruel, when the aficionado misses a performance and is unable to appreciate a staging. Hence the interest in the fact that this production has reached Teatro de la Zarzuela, offering opportunities both for those who enjoyed it years ago and for those who missed it.
The posters proclaim a double bill of two diverting comedies in one act, both with music by Manuel Fernández Caballero: Château Margaux and La viejecita. Although perhaps it would have been more honest to look for a new, distinct title, such as Road to the Stars or Zarzuela on the Air. It poses the problem besetting the programming of género chico in this day and age. These works, conceived with great success within the format of the so-called ‘teatro por horas’, fit uneasily into current ideas of programming: a single one is insufficient, so two works must be yoked in a double bill, which forces a justified unification of settings. In some cases the format has been extended, incorporating musical numbers from other works – which can be problematic, except in fortunate cases like El terrible Pérez as realized by Paco Mir for the Fundación Guerrero. Here the customary model applies: to relate the two works. In this case that means integrating both into a different show, which goes well beyond the idea of “free adaptation” to which the programme refers.
And therein lies one of the great problems of zarzuela programming in the modern age. Following the most traditional Spanish philological criticism – which excludes not only such authors as Miguel Echegaray or José Jackson Veyán from the historical canon, but all comic writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in general, Carlos Arniches and the Quintero Brothers included – leads to total contempt towards the original libretto. In the notes and commentaries we hear once again the repeated idea that the libretto is weak, a startling statement if one really reads the original text of Château Margaux. It is of course an amusing comic skit, without great pretensions, but it is very well-structured – as witness the theatrical effect of the famous ‘Waltz’. Lluís Pasqual’s concept completely eliminates the original work, forcing Ruth Iniesta to sing it standing before a microphone. A huge mistake, the more so given the performer’s outstanding qualities, which unite a lovely, clean sense of lyric soprano line with great stage talent. Only the brief repeat of the show’s finale allows us to glimpse what might have been.
The problem is that the scenic concept does not seek to solve the problems of the libretto but merely to construct a new one. Other problems arise, such as the dramatic rhythm. The idea of the radio contest works initially, with the added fun of the sung adverts. But it becomes tedious when it hangs around for the beginning of La viejecita, whose first scene also unfolds before the microphones, including the first three musical numbers (Preludio, Brindis and the ‘Invitation Chorus’). We have to wait an hour to see the radio studio disappear and the action presented to us – in a dazzling setting, with the orchestra itself on stage. For sure this is magnificently conducted by Miquel Ortega, with precision and elegance, despite having his back to the singers for the whole production.
The concept also poses a more serious problem: playing with the idea of zarzuela as recorded sound rather than as theatrical performance. This does not fail to surprise us in a director of Pasqual’s stage instincts. But added to that, it is set in a radio studio of the nineteen fifties, playing with memory and nostalgia for a period in which the genre seems to have been caught in a repeating loop. And it reinforces unequivocally the negative idea of zarzuela’s relation to Francoism. Looking at the age of the attendees – I was lucky not to go to the first night – I see that the idea works, because it is comfortable. But I also see that it certainly does not help renew the audience, seeking as it does not so much to captivate young people (a tough battle, which we can give up as lost, since they do not attend anything) or a more critical audience that seeks a more complex and less accommodating show. An important challenge seems to have been given up as impossible, when all that is left is a mere theatrical skeleton linking the musical numbers. We must keep looking for what to do with zarzuela – although perhaps the first thing, must be to free it from all these heavy memories that anchor it firmly to the ground of tradition, stopping it looking for new solutions. They are there, but are always different.
© Víctor Sánchez Sánchez and zarzuela.net, 2017