Roger Alier (b. 1941) has been the doyen of zarzuela critics since the 1982 publication of El libro de la zarzuela, which he edited and substantially wrote. For two decades this has been the "zarzuela bible", with its wealth of composer biographies, synopses and commentaries, not to mention a discography of almost every LP available at that time. Although not to be blindly trusted as to dates, names and plot details, the critical acumen of Alier's commentaries wedded to its breadth and readability made El libro easily the most comprehensive guide to the genre.
Frustratingly, it has been out of print for some years, so the appearance of Alier's sturdy new softback is to be welcomed. A quick glance at the contents, though, reveals that La Zarzuela differs in aim and scope from its predecessor.
This time round, Alier begins with a 130 page essay on zarzuela, covering its definition, formal features, history and personalities from 1640 right up to the present day. It's magnificently done. Lucid, revealing and freshly written, encompassing the best of recent work and thought on zarzuela, his narrative is informative and thought-provoking - particularly the section dealing with zarzuela in Barcelona during the Civil War, which quotes extensively from the memoirs of the great baritone, Marcos Redondo. Alier is full of unexpected sidelights. How many of us non-Spaniards knew, for instance, that the first Spanish "talkie" La canción del día (1930) was essentially a zarzuela with music by Guerrero, and made entirely in London due to the lack of technical wherewithal in Madrid?
The essay, like the succeeding sections of the book, is packed with poster graphics, prints and photos. Many of these shots are from recent Teatro de la Zarzuela productions and film stills. A smaller portion, mercifully, feature those naff-looking Barcelona productions which so cruelly defaced the 1982 book! La Zarzuela is essential reading for this most stimulating essay alone.
The rest of the book is devoted to territory familiar from El libro. Or is it? The composer biographies are there, economically pruned but still illuminating. The synopses are there, fewer in number than before but sensibly including some through-written works such as Don Gil de Alcala and the opera version of Las golondrinas (though not Adiós a la Bohemia, briefly but well discussed in 1982).
However, the new plot resumes are heavily foreshortened, space being devoted instead to lists of principal characters and "important" musical numbers. These listings are far from comprehensive, and most disappointingly the commentaries on text and music have vanished virtually without trace. There's one line on La chulapona, to the - demonstrably false - effect that its local detail would prove difficult to export! There's no commentary at all on Luisa Fernanda, and Alier's list of musical highlights erroneously conflates the last two acts as "Acto II".
Who is the reference section aimed at? The entry on La pícara molinera is not atypical. We get a description of the six central characters, a synopsis of just twenty-one lines, a list of twelve musical highlights. There are brief phrases on the Obertura - "de considerable envergadura" (of considerable importance) - and the Intermedio - "de gran efecto, con un tema destacado" (very effective, with a memorable theme). Hardly a sufficient description of Luna's most exhilarating exercise in musical counterpoint, and giving absolutely no clue as to where it comes in the action.
My feeling is that there's not enough discussion here for the aficionado; too much dry information to give newcomers the flavour of such a complex zarzuela, yet not enough to act as a reference for someone wanting to answer a query about the libretto or score. I suspect Alier was hampered by the need to make La Zarzuela conform to the template of his admirable three-volume guide to Opera (also published by Ma Non Troppo). Surely, resumes of the fast-moving storylines of half-spoken zarzuelas need more detail if they are to be intelligible, let alone much practical use.
Gone too is El libro's discography. Appendix 1 is devoted to an exhaustive list of zarzuela-based Spanish films. Alier perhaps feels that the future dissemination of zarzuela production lies in film and video; fair enough, but the great majority of these movies are not available on Spanish video or DVD, and a guide to currently available CDs would have been most welcome.
Appendix 2 lists nearly 80 writers and their most significant librettos, without biographical comment or cross-reference - an odd procedure where the two entries for Perrín and Palacios, at least, are perfect duplicates. Appendix 3 is another list, with dates and composers, of the "most important" zarzuelas. Those covered in the text have page references, and this has to serve in place of a genuine index - another curious decision in a work of reference.
Hang on to your old El libro de la zarzuela. The new-look Alier is a useful tool to correct El libro's liberal sprinkling of errors, but is recommended mainly on account of that superlative 130-page essay. For this at least La Zarzuela deserves a place on the shelves of all Spanish music-lovers. When it comes to the zarzueleros and their works, much better to rely on the new ICCMU Diccionario, which has more and meatier synopses with good commentaries and complete lists of musical numbers, as well as a wealth of extra material on zarzuela's playwrights, singers and lesser-known composers.
© Christopher Webber 2003
La Zarzuela, Roger Alier. Ma Non Troppo, 2002. 498 pp, paperback, 24.00 Euros. ISBN 84-95601-54-0