La Zarzuela. Les origines du théâtre lyrique national en Espagne (1832-1851), by Antoine Le Duc

La Zarzuela
Les origines du théâtre lyrique national
en Espagne (1832-1851)

Antoine Le Duc

Mardaga éditeur, 2003, 256 pp, paperback,
Hayen 11 - B-4140 Sprimont (Belgique)
D. 2003-0024-6; ISBN 2-87009-831-6


Antoine Le Duc does precisely what his title promises, giving a full and detailed account of the Spanish lyric theatre movement in the twenty years leading up to the premiere of Barbieri's Jugar con fuego on 10th September 1851, the first great achievement of the romantic zarzuela. The narrative is suitably spiced with quotations from many contemporary accounts, letters, newspaper articles and reviews. These are given sensibly enough in French, with only the occasional excursion into the original Spanish where Le Duc feels his translation needs further explication.

One of the most valuable aspects of Le Duc's painstaking history is the clarity with which he marks the milestones along the route. Nothing comes from nothing, and the book makes it clear that although Barbieri and Ventura de la Vega's epochal triumph at the Teatro de Circo came to be seen in hindsight as the foundation stone of a mighty edifice, the laying of that stone was prepared by a whole series of efforts, great and small, from other composers and writers, decades of polemical debate about the very nature of any possible Spanish musical renaissance, and chance combinations of political, financial as well as theatrical circumstance.

The book begins with a six-chapter section devoted to an overview of early 19th century Spanish political history, as well as the economic and social conditions prevalent (particularly in Madrid) during the reign of Ferdinand VII. This is space well spent, explaining as it does the nationalistic passion which provided the impetus for the rebirth of indigenous Spanish musical culture. As ever, the suitability of the vernacular for weighty, operatic expression was contested - not, in the main, by composers and writers - but by the aristocratic and upper middle class audiences which paid good money for their opera and which generally much preferred it to be in an elegant language they did not understand. Plus ça change ....

The book proceeds to catalogue the tentative steps forward - and occasionally back - which were to lead to Barbieri's triumph. The influence of French vaudeville and opéra comique, germinated by the contemporary sainete madrileño, older tonadilla, and low-brow demotic musical comedy; the emergence of social and political satire in the gallophobic zarzuelas of Juan de Alba; the constraints of the Censorship; the alternation of aristocratic and populist dramatic themes; the increasing musical ambition of the genre, from one act, to two, and finally to the three of the zarzuela grande which was to dominate the two decades following Jugar del fuego; these are some of the most important aspects of zarzuela's origins discussed by Le Duc.

Heros emerge. The Italian Basilio Basili, whose Spanish musical comedies, most importantly those written with the poet Breton de los Herreros, kept zarzuela on the map during the 1830's and 40's; the young, French-trained Rafael Hernando, whose pivotal Colegias y soldados and El duende were the crucial successes which gave impetus to the movement; Cristobal Oudrid, whose simpler, populist music offered a glimpse of the possibilities of a distinctively Spanish musical style; Joaquín Gaztambide, the first zarzuela composer whose technical armoury allowed him to write Spanish works such as La mansajera fully able to match the aesthetic and theatrical scope of Italian opera; the comic bass Francisco Salas, both eyes firmly fixed on the main chance (like many another actor of genius), and whose popularity helped the nascent form do well enough financially to survive.

Then there is Francisco Asenjo Barbieri himself. Le Duc draws liberally on the composer's sharp commentaries, not just on the work of his friends and contemporaries, but on the polemical debates which raged over these artistic, social and fiscal issues which affected the subsequent course of Spanish music.

Francisco Asenjo Barbieri

Crucially - maybe as a consequence of his own initial lack of confidence - Barbieri supported the more problematic indigenous "mixed" zarzuela form as opposed to "pure" Spanish opera; and when his Rossinian Gloria y peluca with its seguidillas "such as one might hear every morning sung in the midst of Calle Mayor" enjoyed a popular triumph far wider than the more fastidious style of Gaztambide, the way forward was clear.

Le Duc outlines in sometimes dizzying detail the endless game of musical chairs played with Madrid's crumbling theatres, which was to end in 1851 when these young composers together with José Inzenga, Salas and the energetic writer Luis Olona, joined forces and took a lease on the Teatro de Circo. The first new work played in the renovated theatre was Gaztambide's much-admired Tribulaciones. The second was Jugar con fuego, which is where Le Duc's book comes to a full stop. An abrupt one too, with no description of that first night triumph or the press reactions which enliven many of the premieres described earlier in the book. The effect is one of literary coitus interruptus.

Otherwise there is little to find fault with, either as to content or style. One or two dates are hard to track down in the body of the text; the lucid, strictly chronological approach is broken up near the end for an excursion into Andalucia, which means the premiere of Inzenga's important El campamento gets covered twice. As the book makes it startlingly clear that the composers, rather than the writers, formed zarzuela's creative vanguard, more discussion of the music of works of the quality of El duende and La mansajera would have been welcome - Le Duc is, as the biographical note tells us, a professional organist as well as literary academic.

The main frustration of his book is its lack of an index, or even an extra appendix providing a chronological listing of the principal zarzuelas and musical theatre works discussed. The omission of these is only partly addressed by the concluding Table des matières, a useful synoptic overview of the 4 parts and 25 chapters into which the book logically falls. It is a pity Le Duc spoiled his ship for this ha'porth of tar, because the body of his book is a model of clarity, academic balance and thought-provoking insight. As much as anything else, it whets the appetite for long-overdue revivals of some of these evidently worthwhile stepping stones towards that first, great romantic zarzuela, Jugar con fuego.

© Christopher Webber 2003


La Zarzuela, Les origines du théâtre lyrique national en Espagne (1832-1851)
Antoine Le Duc. Mardaga éditeur, 2003, 256 pp, paperback, Hayen 11 - B-4140 Sprimont (Belgique); D. 2003-0024-6; ISBN 2-87009-831-6


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