I have little to say about the exercise in taxidermy which finishes Teatro de la Zarzuela’s 2018-19 lyric season. Or more precisely, stuffs it. Audience reaction has been strong against the production, laced with barracking and booing (though little of either was in evidence during the YouTube streaming). The theatre’s director, Daniel Blanco, has expressed disgust in the national press about this behaviour, even suggesting that the anger emanated from a small, organised cabal. It is surely unwise of Blanco to blame his audience, for what is only the latest act of self-harm by the theatre itself.
The cause of the trouble is this: a respected stage director – the 68-year-old elder statesman of Catalan theatre, Lluís Pasqual – has replaced Romero and Shaw’s beloved Doña Francisquita with a new scenario in which a troop of singers rehearse for a ‘Second Republic’ 1930s radio production (Act 1), a cut-price 1960s TV gala (Act 2), and a 2019 stage show (Act 3). The zarzuela material provides a link through time, no more. We’ve had a similar media-fest earlier in the season, of course, with Gaztambide’s Un sueño de una noche de verano. How unfortunate that the theatre has fallen into the same hole not once, but twice in quick succession – and with equally embarrassing results. Worse here potentially, as this co-production with Barcelona and Lausanne may not yet be decently dead and buried.
This time all the notes are there, and in the right order. But Pasqual’s exercise in time travel removes connection between those notes and any theatrical plot, situation or character relating to the zarzuela for which they were written. His linking narratives simply embalm the body, dousing it with diluted verbal formaldehyde; and mummifying poor Doña Francisquita in this nostalgic manner casts no theatrical, historical or political light on the creature itself. The stage director coolly tosses the corpse out of the plane without a parachute.
So take a bow, Ismael Jordi (Fernando), Sabina Puértolas (Francisquita) and Óliver Díaz in the pit for your outstanding work. Take a bow, Lucero Tena, doyenne of castañuelistas, for your scintillating guest turn in the great, Act 3 Fandango: for one moment, she alone builds a bridge across time. Take a bow, the uniformly excellent supporting cast, chorus and band. Yet all these excellences can do nothing to save Vives’s three-act classic from a fate worse than death, when the end of Pasqual’s taxidermy is to make Vives’s masterwork a grey still life, drained of musical, verbal and visual interest. It was simply too uninvolving, too tired to raise my hackles, though I can see why some of the paying public decided they’d had enough for one season and gave vent to their feelings.
The vital (and deliciously modern) production of El barberillo de Lavapiés last month showed that budgetary ‘cheap’ does not exclude artistically ‘cheerful’, so where did this show go wrong? I suppose the central question is, what did Pasqual believe he was trying to do? Was he motivated by some atavistic dislike of zarzuela? After all, as a 1950s Catalan child, he may well – like many of his generation – associate zarzuela with Rivera, Franco, fascism and regional repression. If so, I hope eviscerating this one has exorcised some negative personal demons about Madrid monopolism and Spanish operatic conservativism.
Was he perhaps motivated by aversion to the spoken word? Given his glowing track record in classic theatre, this seems unlikely. Romero and Shaw’s text is a model of good zarzuela dialogue, close enough to Lope de Vega’s original drama to reflect a little renaissance stardust, but with its own intelligence, rhythm and wit – qualities sadly lacking in Pasqual’s substitute speeches.
More delicately, it has been suggested that Pascual perhaps had a financial motive: by merging the original libretto with his own, lamely satirical ‘adaptation’, was he hoping to increase his royalties? That he has not done so, may be surmised from a snide remark he inserts in Act 3, concerning the ‘140 heirs’ who refused to give their permission for this adaptation. So no extra royalties, then. And in any case I am convinced that a leading director would never compromise his integrity by making changes, simply to line his own pockets.
Enough of the autopsy. Sadly, this was no meaningful exercise in artistic deconstruction: the gutting of Doña Francisquita’s dialogue, characters and plot can only be read as a vote of no confidence in zarzuela as a theatrical form, from a management which seems uncomfortable with the spoken word, frustrated with zarzuela’s reliance on it, and uncertain as to how to breathe life into it. Yet as Graham Vick showed in his absorbing Curro Vargas here a few years back, for anyone prepared to engage with it, stage dialogue is not a problem but an opportunity; and this is one zarzuela which needs absolutely no help in that department.
Stuffing and mounting Doña Francisquita this way, as if it were a dead Norwegian Blue parrot, did nothing to bring Vives up to date or render him ‘relevant’. Quite the reverse. Nor did shoving in gratuitous references to WhatsApp help showcase his gorgeous, sensual score. This was a dull evening, soon to be forgotten. For season ticket holders in the stalls, it may take longer to forgive.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2019