COMPARATIVE CD REVIEW
Katiuska (1931) may have been Sorozábal's first great success, but its music is as consistently marvellous as any of the later scores. Perhaps the strange affinity between Russian and Spanish musical character - even the bandurillas masquerade perfectly as balalaikas - makes Katiuska seem much more deep-rooted than any of the 'exotic' operetta-style works produced during the previous two decades. At all events its abundance of superb melody, wit and passion ensure this lovely work a place amongst the most popular of all zarzuelas.
Each of the three performances currently available - all conducted by the composer - have plenty in their favour, not least in the casting of the title role. In the early Hispavox (1958), Lorengar's distinctive warmth, musicality and security make for a classic performance. Her "Noche hermosa" in praise of the lovely Ukrainian night is outstanding. The lighter timbre of Higueras brings a delicious, girlish freshness to the two-disk Alhambra set from 1967, which features the complete dialogue efficiently delivered by actors who don't always sound much like their vocal counterparts. Penagos in the later Zafiro (1970) makes a most affecting Katiuska, marrying Lorengar's richness to Higueras's purity, but adding delicate, melancholic brush-strokes very much her own, particularly in "Vívia sola".
Katiuska's Commissar-lover is almost equally well served. Cesari displays his customary, subtle artistry in "Calor de nido", whilst Blancas boasts a clean gentility of tone particularly rewarding in Pedro's more lyrical music. Neither, however, is quite as convincing a character as Ausensi on Zafiro. Vocally he falls far short of either of them. His tone - unlike his tuning -never varies, and his scooping excavations of the upper reaches in "Somos dos barcos" grate horribly (Blancas and Higueras are best here). Yet somehow, Ausensi's beefy masculinity seems exactly right for Red Pedro, and his comparatively coarse delivery of "la mujer Rusa" wins out over the sophistication of his rivals.
There are no weak links in casting for any of these sets. Though Serrano was surely too mature for Olga by 1958, this only counts in the wistful "Ukrania de mi amor". Kraus seems in retrospect wonderfully lavish casting for the Prince, his "Es delicada flor" phrased with memorably aristocratic largesse. Astonishing that he's just recorded the tenor lead in Marina for Auvidis, a full forty years on! Frutos is an amusingly bluff Bruno Brunovich on the two later sets, de Victoria a most touching Olga on Zafiro. The various gaggles of seedy conspiritors all work well together, though perhaps spirits are a notch higher on Zafiro.
Playing is consistently acceptable, though perhaps the strings have more bloom in the Alhambra - the only recording to include the orchestral Preludio to Act 2, though this is merely a brief reprise of the "Cosacos de Kazán" from Act 1. Sorozábal's tempi and focussed energy didn't change much over the dozen or so years covering these sessions - nor did they need to. The Hispavox CD transfer sounds its age - though the vocalists come across well enough, the orchestral image is fuzzy and dim. The main problem with the Alhambra is the difference in ambience between the acceptably balanced musical numbers and the actors, who are placed well forward - particularly distracting in the passages of dialogue over music. Dynamic range is restricted, and there is one very alarming technical glitch, a bizarre rise in pitch towards the end of the Act 1 finale. The Zafiro recording is straightforwardly full-bodied.
Unless you must have two disks and full dialogue on Alhambra, choice really lies between the other two recordings. Lorengar, Cesari and Kraus are certainly unforgettable. Still - even allowing for the fact that Ausensi's Pedro is perhaps controversially robust - the Zafiro is overall the more colourful, lively and better recorded. Isabel Penagos may not have been as individual an artist as Pilar Lorengar, but her Katiuska has a specially involving quality which ultimately just wins the day.
© Christopher Webber 1999