Does Parody in the Género Chico sound too narrowly specialised a title to appeal to any but the diehard zarzuela scholar? If so, let me say straight away that this is the most informed, informative and enjoyable book touching zarzuela I've had the pleasure of reading, whether in Spanish or English.
Every great theatre movement produces its parodists. The English stage has been particularly fortunate in them, numbering expert wits of the calibre of Henry Fielding and W.S.Gilbert amongst its practitioners. In Spain, the 19th century produced a rich and varied theatre worthy of comparison with any in Europe. Serious political and philosophical drama vied in popularity with zarzuela grande and the one-act género chico, both in its musical and 'straight' formats, to say nothing of the revista and other lighter musical forms deriving from French and other operettas. Little wonder that all this provided rich tillage for the parodists.
Patricia Bentivegna covers the field with thoroughness, wit and a catching enthusiasm for what may seem at first to be something of a by-way for most of us zarzuela aficionados. She points acutely to the diverse techniques and tricks by which parodists down the ages have taken their scalpels to pretentious and popular successes alike. Nothing and no one was sacred, not even - or rather least of all - the solemn, Nobel Prize-winning playwright José Echegaray, brother of zarzuelero Miguel.
José is indeed a lost luminary of his time, and it's little wonder that his features adorn the front cover. This is a clue to the real value of the book, which slyly uses parody as a comedic side-entry into the broad history of 19th and early 20th century Spanish theatre. We make the acquaintance not only of the fabled Echegaray, but playwrights of the quality of Guttiérrez, author of the El trovador famously set by Verdi; Zorilla, whose great verse drama Don Juan Tenorio produced a raft of parodies, not to mention a three-act zarzuela to his own libretto set to music by Nicolás Manent; Adelardo López de Ayala, Benito Pérez Galdós and Jacinto Benevente. Nor did foreign operas escape parody, and some of these - notably El dúo de la africana and La corte de la Faraón - have classic zarzuela status.
El dúo, remarkably, led to a parody of a parody, in Los africanistas. Zarzuela grande and even the género chico classics themselves did not escape, and Bentivegna throws some interesting light on works as diverse as Chapí's La tempestad and El puñao de rosas, Vives' Bohemios and Marqués' El anillo de hierro through examination of the comic send-ups and topical political parodies which sprang up in the shadow of their successes.
We get helpful summaries of original plots as well as their parodies, with copious textual illustration - and in the case of the El golfémio (an interesting parody of Puccini's La Boheme by Salvador María Granés and the composer Luis Arnedo Muñoz) a discussion of the parodistic musical content as well. Although she does not provide English translations of the Spanish texts, Bentivegna does comment in detail on the puns, vernacular idioms and word-plays which make for good parody, all of which makes life a lot easier for those of us whose Spanish is ... well, less advanced than we might wish.
Echegaray emerges as a Grand Hero. The plots of his outrageous, moralistic, tragic melodramas such as En el puño de la espada and El gran Galeoto might seem almost beyond parody, and certainly critical opinion was not universally positive about him even in his heyday. He was a gift to género chico comedy, and hardly less so to Professor Bentivegna, who sets about him with a sunny, infectious relish which is highly diverting. Yet the book stimulates a real desire to read many of the other dramas discussed, such as José Dicenta's grim social tragedy Juan José, inspiration for Sorozábal's still unperformed operatic magnum opus; and Benevente's commedia-inspired Los intereses creados, which in turn provided source material for Penella's Don Gil de Alcalá.
The sections of this well-ordered book dealing with opera, operetta and zarzuela parodies are of obvious interest. Did you know that Torregrosa wrote music for a parody of El puñao de rosas entitled El cuñao de Rosa? Or that Penella's La perra chica was a cheeky parody of Chapí's La patria chica? Indeed, zarzuela was rarely far from the parodists' pens: familiar phrases such as "No me mires, no me mates; déjame vivir en paz" (La canción de la Lola), "No cantes más La Africana" (El dúo de la Africana) and "¿Dónde vas con mantón de Manila?" (La verbena de la Paloma) could always be turned to humorous advantage, and Bentivegna's book evokes a vivid picture of the whole género chico through a host of examples showing precisely how such famous lines were used.
Salvador María Granés crops up throughout the book as a leading practitioner of the tongue-in-cheek art, and more information on him and some of the other parodists would have been welcome. I'm surprised to find no mention of Miguel Echegaray's and Amadeo Vives' Juegos malabares (1910) along with other parodies of Benevente's fashionable circus-drama La fuerza bruta (1908); and Bentivegna doesn't refer to Ricardo de la Vega's sharp political parody of La bruja in El año pasada por agua. She takes an unexpectedly bashful line on Perrin and Palacios' coarse double-entendres in La corte de Faraón (please, why is Putifar so naughty in Spanish?!?) and doesnt reveal its basis in a pre-existent French skit, Madame Putifar.
In truth, though, these are very minor quibbles. The depth and breadth of her scholarship, the wit of her writing, and above all her zest in conveying the feeling, not only of parody and the género chico, but also of the whole, remarkable spectrum of Spanish theatre of the time, make Bentivegna's book a delight from cover to cover, and a real treasure trove for anyone interested in putting the classic zarzuelas of the Golden Age in context.
© Christopher Webber 2002