El sueño de una noche de verano
Some years ago, Teatro de la Zarzuela asked the eminent Argentine stage director Gustavo Tambascio to take charge of the first modern staging of a three-act ópera cómica by Joaquín Gaztambide. El sueño de una noche de verano is an elegant, Italianate work, setting Patricio de la Escosura’s 1852 translation of a French original written a mere two years earlier for Ambroise Thomas. As Le Songe d’une nuit d’été was already making its way around Europe, it was a bold move by the Spaniards to challenge its achievement. The plot is a mixture of comedy, fantasy and high drama centred around Queen Elizabeth I’s obsession with the dissolute William Shakespeare, and her scheme – aided unwillingly by her chief gamekeeper Sir John Falstaff – to save the poet from drunken despair. She finally cajoles Shakespeare into agreeing to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will make his eternal reputation and put England on the road to greatness. This libretto is outstandingly rich for its time, a sophisticated narrative examining the complex interactions between power, free-spirited art and sexual attraction.
Tambascio conceived the notion of giving his production a 1950s Dolce Vita Italian overlay, with Orson Welles directing Gaztambide’s zarzuela as a publicity stunt for Spain’s fascist government. Now there was a grain of lateral-thinking genius in this: Welles’ Falstaff film Chimes at Midnight to Shakespeare’s scripts was bankrolled by Franco’s government and shot in Spain, a fact which sits well with one of the opera’s themes – the use of state sponsorship of the arts to promote a national profile. Tambascio might have brought this off, but following his death last year perhaps the concept should have been quietly buried with him. Instead, his assistant Raúl Asenjo – now in the same post for Daniel Bianco at Teatro de la Zarzuela – bravely stepped into the breach, and the drama began…
Act One – Tragedy?
In trying to follow faithfully his mentor’s concept, Asenjo came up with a lame satire (of picaresque zarzuela ínfima tone) set in a Rome trattoria, in place of Gaztambide’s English country pub. He introduced Franco’s cultural director and an operetta Baron, both pursuing Orson Welles to direct the film; a movie star called Isabella Tortellini [ha ha] who is obscurely vital to the whole project; a fat opera singer called Giovanni Sabatini [hee hee] who isn’t; and a drug-crazed writer called Guillermo del Moro [ho ho] to write the script … though whether anyone in the film world has ever considered a mere scriptwriter remotely worth pursuing is open to question. In any case, this Guillermo del Moro chap seems to have just scripted a successful comedy [sic.] film featuring Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Ophelia. Yes, my head hurts too.
This flimflam rapidly runs out of road – cue endless machinations to get everyone into Tudor costumes for midnight in Richmond Park, still vaguely set in Italy – after which Asenjo tears up his script completely and merges his inventions with the zarzuela’s English Queen, Fat Knight and Poet. We end up in a limbo resembling a royal court, the movie crew sidelined – with the quaint exception of Orson Welles, left smirking at the foot of Elizabeth’s throne. But the real damage is done early on. The evening had started with an excruciating hostage to fortune – a long spoken scene in which the philistine Spanish officials flaunt their complete ignorance of zarzuela – and more or less ends with a cynical monologue from Welles which amounts to five words, ‘take the money and run’.
‘Tragedy?’ Well perhaps not, but this ‘adaptation’ left a confused, bitter impression. Why subject Madrid audiences to yet another show relocated to the nostalgic world of 1950s cinema? How many people outside a middle-aged coterie care a fig for these old films, any more than for old zarzuelas? The jokes are lame, the writing poor. Worse, the crudity is a million miles away from Gaztambide’s subtle and delicate bel canto drama, which gets lost in the verbal fog. Even if ‘twere well done, ‘twere best done quickly: and the worst of it is, that Asenjo’s additions make for a longer running time than the original. How many of the audience will leave the theatre with much idea about El sueño de una noche de verano? Teatro de la Zarzuela have not been fair to Gaztambide: instead of paying yet another dubious ‘adaptor’, they might have used the money to hire a proper dramaturge, someone able to defend verbal values within an organisation which – whatever its visual and musical merits – seems deaf to the spoken word.
Act Two – Triumph?
All of which is a shame, because visually and musically this production had merit. Nicolás Boni’s trattoria and park sets were appealing, fun and functional, Jesús Ruiz’s costumes made clearer statements than Asenjo’s script about Shakespearean film parallels – I especially liked his Max Reinhardt (1934 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream) fairies and grey-garbed chorus of Beefeaters. Marco Carniti’s direction was clean, lively and well-motivated. It was hardly his fault that the script was such a turkey, though he deserves some stick for not exercising quality control.
As to Gaztambide’s score ... as Eric Morecambe famously said to André Previn, we got all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order. The lively opening pub scene for Falstaff and the chorus was oddly placed after the storm interlude and Elizabeth’s entry-duet with her lady-in-waiting Olivia. The Queen’s big moment, a full-dress aria along the lines of ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, was untimely ripped from its place in the final scene and relocated to the nocturnal park, where it meant nothing and held up the action. Conductor Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez favoured his usual middling tempi, but there was no want of lightness to his allegros, no lethargy in his adagios, and the orchestra played capably – especially the harp and woodwind, who relished Gaztambide’s poetic writing. I must single out Salvador Salvador’s impeccable clarinet solo, in the extended introduction to the Queen’s aria, given with velvet tone and perfect poise. The gentlemen of the chorus sang their lovely piano-in-the-park a capella watchmen’s number (decked in those fetching, cobweb-grey Yeomen of the Guard uniforms) with scrupulous attention to Gaztambide’s dynamic markings.
Our principal singers on 10 February certainly tipped the balance towards ‘triumph’. The Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini is a real find: his voice has an individual beauty and graceful perfection of line which will hold the largest houses in thrall. He need fear few bel canto rivals, and his Shakespeare was a constant joy. His regal muse was Raquel Lojendio, who as a startling bonus, danced that long introduction to Elizabeth’s showpiece aria almost entirely en pointe. Nor did her well-controlled lyric soprano fall short, either there or in the duets with Ballerini at the heart of the drama, which made compelling listening. The genial Falstaff of Luis Cansino brought Gaztambide’s gentle comedy to life without overdoing it. His familiar baritone may not be quite so lithe as it was, but his vocal technique and good taste are happily intact.
Beatrice Díaz was such an alert, witty Olivia, that one wished the composer had given her more to do. With the exception of Antoni Lliteres, whose clarion tenor fashioned a credibly fervent, angry Shakespeare, the 9 February cast could not cut through Asenjo’s gobbledygook to quite this effect, though María Rey-Joly and Sandra Fernández acted well together in tandem, and the vocally-stretched Valeriano Lanchas was a personable enough Falstaff. Of the remainder, Javier Franco’s stiffly conventional Arturo did little to make this underwritten role stand out; but finally I must salute the actors for doing their best to make bricks out of Asenjo’s straw. All hail Sandro Cordero: Orson Welles could hardly have been better impersonated, either as to physical personage or vocal character, and his compelling presence did everything possible to reconcile us to the appalling script. In the words of the Bard, ‘for this relief much thanks!’
The differences between Thomas and Gaztambide are fascinating. This is not the place to discuss them at length, except to note that the Spanish score is swifter, lighter and entirely Italianate in its forms (though not without its share of Hispanic rhythms and harmonic inflections). The French opera is more leisurely, allowing Thomas greater space to develop the secondary characters of Olivia and her jealous lover Arturo Latimer – which pays theatrical dividends when the latter falls wounded in his duel with Shakespeare. Thomas’s wit is also more pointed, his sense of sentimental fantasy more acutely magical in the nocturnal park scene. When it comes to the arias for Shakespeare and the Queen, Gaztambide’s economy ensures that momentum is never lost, and both composers are inspired to their best work in the tenor/soprano duets, musically more fluent in the Spanish version, more searching dramatically in the French. Certainly both operas deserve to be heard more frequently: although Le Songe d’une nuit d’été enjoyed a vogue during Thomas’s time, it has sunk almost as fully below the surface as its Spanish successor, and with as little cause.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2019