El niño judío

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated September 26th 2001

Mail me or visit my Homepage

El niño judío
by Pablo Luna
libretto by Antonio Paso and Enrique García Álvarez

® recommended recording

The Citadel at Aleppo
The Citadel at Aleppo, one of the exotic settings featured in Luna's El niño judío.

As the new century got into its stride, the zarzuela began to lean towards the manners of operetta. The robust comedy of the Madrileño genero chico began to succumb to the flimsy exoticism that appealed to the jaded palettes of Paris and Vienna. When the operettas of Lehar, for example, started to find favour in Madrid, zarzuela composers were not slow to tailor their work to the new fashion. The most successful exponent of the operetta style in the 1910's and 20's was undoubtedly Pablo Luna, and in El niño judío ("The Jewish Boy") his librettists provided him with an unashamed vehicle for highly coloured musico-theatrical display.

Luna's score is resilient and varied enough to make up for an obvious lack of substance as to plot. The flamboyant Canción española remains justly popular, likewise the curried harmonies of the Danza india - a number which conveys the weird impression of a herd of elephants dancing a pasodoble. The mordant black comedy of the Act 2 Dúo for Samuel and Jenaro is equally good. With xylophone suggesting skeletal dancing bones, it even offers a striking foretaste of that deathshead humour which Puccini was to provide for Ping, Pang and Pong in Turandot.

Act 1, Scene 1 - A bookstall near the Prado, in Madrid, 1900. After an orchestral Preludio, built on the material of the Canción española, we meet Samuel, the talkative and likeable youngster in charge of the stall. He takes more interest in browsing the stock than in selling it, at least until his sweetheart Concha turns up. Samuel is anxious to prove himself an ambitious trader with prospects, in order to convince her wealthy father, Jenaro, that he will make a desirable fiancé. Concha tells her beloved that his poverty is only incidental to the problem - Jenaro has a rooted objection to taking on a Jewish son-in-law. Samuel blithely counters that in that case, they only need wait for her father to die in order to become rich and do precisely as they please.

Before Concha can reply, Jenaro himself appears with the unwelcome news that Samuel's father has been taken seriously ill and is calling for his son. The young man, mortified at the ill fortune his own quip has foretold, hastens to his father's bedside, leaving Concha to mind the stall. Jenaro tells her that the dying man has confessed that Samuel is not his true son. Rather, he is the child of a rich Aleppo Jew, Samuel Barchilón, and his wife Esther, whom Samuel's "father" had desperately wanted to marry. In revenge, he kidnapped their baby son and fled to Spain, bringing up the child as his own. All of which has changed Jenaro's perspective on Samuel's marital ambition. If Samuel turns out to be wealthy after all, he will gladly let him marry Concha - indeed it is imperative that the three of them travel to Aleppo immediately to stake the boy's claim.

Scene 2 - The Market Square of Aleppo in Syria, beneath the Citadel. In the opening Coro the traders vie to attract the attention of potential purchasers. Manacor, a travelling pedlar, sings of the life of a wandering Jew in a lilting Romanza: "Qué me importa ser Judio", accompanying himself on a harp and echoed by the chorus. Samuel and Concha, watching a group of local pipesmokers, compare the similarity of Christian and Arab habits, in a vals-dúo: "Ay, que gusta". Barchilón appears, and the traders rush towards him. Seeing some slaves for sale, he remarks on the despicable perfidy of these dregs of humanity, but one of them, the Spanish-born Rebeca, sings her sad history in a touching Romanza: "Yo era infanta castellana". When Manacor innocently tries to interest Barchilón in "jewellery for the wife", he is greeted with a torrent of abuse. Esther had an affair with a great Eastern potentate who was lodging with them in Aleppo, and ran away with him to India years ago, when her wicked secret was finally revealed. Since then Barchilón has done little but curse the woman and the son she bore.

Exhausted by his rant, Barchilón goes back into his house just before the Spaniards reappear. Jenaro questions Manacor to find out Barchilón's whereabouts. He looks forward with Samuel, Concha and the pedlar to the anticipated joyful outcome in a Cuarteto: "Ay moreno, moreno". They are not a little taken aback when Barchilón, instead of embracing his long-lost son, does his best to drown him in the town well before being pulled away, kicking and screaming. Manacor tells them the reason: Samuel is not Barchilón's son at all, but the child of the fabulously wealthy Rajah, Jamar-Jalea. The Spanish party immediately decide to take their dream of untold riches to India, and Manacor prepares to resume his wanderings, gently recalling the melody of his Romanza - "Beber quisiera yo en ellos".

Act 2, Scene 1 - The Palace of Jamar-Jalea ("Gobble-Jelly"), in India. The act begins with a short Interludio, which leads directly into a Coro, a peon of praise to the great Rajah, wishing him a long and blissful life. This leads directly into the famous Danza india in which Jamar-Jalea's warriors and dancing girls cavort in energetic tribute to their Prince. The Spaniards are presented before the Rajah, but Esther has died and he is now under the sway of his second wife, the cruel Jubea. When she accuses them of being imposters the Rajah has no choice but to publicly denounce them. However as soon as Jubea is off the scene, Jamar-Jalea embraces Samuel as his long-lost child. The happily family group look forward to escaping to Spain together, with the help of a liberal supply of gems. In response to Jamar-Jelea's curiosity about their homeland, Concha sings her famous Canción española: "De España vengo, soy española", the orchestra mimicking Jenaro's guitar accompaniment. The Rajah enjoys the song so much that Jenaro generously offers to give him the guitar, but the party mood is cut short by the unexpected return of Jubea. Furious, she orders the three foreigners to be taken away to the temple and made ready for execution.

Scene 2 - The temple. Samuel and Jenaro try to raise their spirits with ghoulish imaginings of high jinks in the graveyard - after they are dead, their skeletons will be dancing grimly under the light of the moon - Dúo: "Soy un rayito de luna". Six Brahmin Priests solemnly complete the Hindu death rites, whilst the Spaniards prepare themselves with a jaunty version of the Christian Kyrie - Coro y Concertante: "Salve, salve". Further revelations await. The High Priest tells Samuel that he is not Esther's son after all. Esther confessed to the Brahmin before she died that, fearful of Barchilón's jealous fury, she had exchanged her precious love child for the illegitimate son of a servant girl before her flight from Aleppo. But then, as Samuel is about to die, what does it matter anyway?

Jamar-Jalea arrives in the nick of time to annul his wife's cruel decree and free the prisoners. They bid a fond farewell as he gives them money and jewels to help them escape back to Madrid. Samuel's travels have not given him untold wealth. But all is far from lost - after what they have been through together, Jenaro consents wholeheartedly to the "Jewish Boy"'s marriage to his beloved Concha. A brief orchestral finale provides a triumphant happy-ever-after, a last reminiscence of Manacor's Romanza, as the curtain falls.

song texts

[Back to top of page]