The Great Enchantment, ‘National Opera’
In the third act of the opera Circe, the ghost of Achilles appears before Ulysses to remind him of his duty as a warrior and husband. Taking armour, helmet and sword, the son of Laërtes dashes away to Ithaca, abandoning forever the sorceress Circe and breaking her heart. Now I like to fantasize about the musicologist Emilio Casares as that same ghost, appearing before Daniel Bianco – artistic director of Teatro de la Zarzuela – urging him to don his bullfighting gear in proud defence of the National Opera.
After resurrections in concert of titles such as Farinelli (Bretón), Mirentxu (Guridi) and Marianela (Pahissa) I see clearly that, compared to La tempestad (Chapí), María del Pilar (Giménez) and Las Calatravas (Luna), it is the operas that come off best, in this cumulative project of ‘heritage revivals’ that are not intended to be permanent additions to the repertoire. None of them have been recorded, and none will be performed again in the near future, although all of them have a tick in that ‘revived’ box to frustrate (no doubt) any future idea of staging them. In projects of this nature, it is not clear to me whether the artistic and editorial effort involved is rewarded by a mere two days in concert – plus with luck a radio broadcast – when afterwards the titles turn back into rocks, like Ulysses’ companions on arrival at Circe’s grotto.
In this case, Miguel Ramos Carrión confessed to turning to The Odyssey and Calderón de la Barca’s El mayor encanto, amor (‘The Great Enchantment, Love’) in order to bless the inauguration of Madrid’s Teatro Lírico, an auditorium built in 1902 to establish the National Opera with Chapí as artistic promoter. It was a momentous time, with the theatres-by-the-hour at full capacity – Chapí had just premiered El barquillero, El puñao de rosas and La venta de don Quijote – while Teatro Real was hosting Samson et Dalila and Der Ring des Nibelungen. By this time, the composer of La revoltosa had founded the Sociedad de Autores Españoles and was recognised as an inescapable benchmark for the culture of his time. In this sense, his lack of prejudice (or judgement) in choosing librettos is astonishing. Perhaps the writer of Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente thought that in order to ‘found’ the long-desired National Opera it was necessary to return to the classics, in particular to the baroque, mythological Calderón of El golfo de las sirenas. The result was a well-written text, not without atmosphere, but with characters lacking in psychology. Chapí did what he could, focusing on orchestral colour and above all on the juxtaposition of moments of dramatic and visual impact in depicting a protagonist who develops conflictingly as a truly tragic heroine.
Beyond the glitzily descriptive orchestral effects (resources which, to be frank, had already been mined in La tempestad and La bruja), the music of Circe is all the more delicious the more it ‘relaxes’ and approaches the lyrical populism of zarzuela: in the second act duet, in the lament before the final immolation, and in the singers’ madrigal. Chapí – intuitively – doesn’t resort to thematic development, and doesn’t work his few leitmotifs hard, so that we have here a decidedly hedonistic, ‘Mediterranean’ work (as the musicologist Francesc Cortès defined it) which cannot be fully enjoyed without a staging. However, let us reserve that privilege for other Chapí titles which can make dignified boast of their own history of success and oblivion: Mujer y reina, La Cara de Dios or countless gems of género chico such as El cortejo de la Irene, La chavala or Pepe Gallardo.
The big winner in this exhumation of Circe has been the soprano Saioa Hernández, for whom the role of the sorceress might have been written, bar by bar. Her stage presence, expressiveness and technical proficiency moved the enthusiastic audience. Alongside her, we once again applaud Alejandro Roy, who came off more than well in the thankless and difficult role of Ulysses. Impeccable, as always, was the masterful Rubén Amoretti, whom we can consider the best bass around of all those dedicated to Hispanic lyricism. The Belarusian contralto Marina Pinchuk learned her brief but vital part in three days, as Achilles’ Ghost and the Voice of Juno, leading the way in perhaps the evening’s most Wagnerian moments, and making us think (mutatis mutandis) of the subterranean Erda. Well done to the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid under the diligent baton of Guillermo García Calvo, who once again demonstrated his golden worth at Calle de Jovellanos.
© Miccone and zarzuela.net, 2021