Three CD reissues
from the "Golden Age" ...

It's been a vintage year for good zarzuela recordings - or rather, a good year for vintage recordings. Both Fonotron and Blue Moon have introduced welcome CD reissues of pre-LP material, and the latest batch of three disks from Fonotron - on their Homokord label - includes a deal of fascinating music, notably in a trio of rarely heard zarzuelas by Alonso and Torroba, conducted by the composers themselves.

The first batch of Homokord's Historia de la Música Lírica Española issues scored higher for content than for presentation, with virtually no information about the recordings or the pieces themselves making it into the CD jewel cases. Spurred perhaps by the stylish booklets from rivals Blue Moon, Fonotron have come up trumps this time, outdoing the opposition by providing full synopses, and almost complete libretti for the vocal numbers. The cases tempt the eye with reproductions of original covers and evocative cameo photos of composers, conductors and singers.

Having succumbed, few will find cause for repentence. Not surprisingly, as most feature the fine zarzuelists for whom these zarzuelas were written. The most eagerly awaited (HC006) begins with a tantalisingly brief selection of numbers from Torroba's famous Maravilla of 1941,


with Luis Sagi-Vela and other original cast members conducted by the composer. Attractive though the other four pieces from this amorous story about a golden-hearted opera diva are, none quite comes up to the level of the popular "Amor, vida de mi vida" - though Sagi-Vela's beautiful performance of that show-stopper alone is worth the price of the disk.
The longer selection on this CD is from a virtually unknown late zarzuela by Jesus Guridi. Although it was written in 1951 La Condesa de la Aguja y el Dedal ("The Threadneedle Countess") is pugnaciously conservative in idiom and unfailingly fastidious. There is a brilliant comedy quartet which could be straight out of The Gondoliers, an equally infectious Habanera-terceto and a witty Couplés. Some of the other numbers - notably a sinewy, smouldering Intermedio - start well but flag before the finish, but altogether this is an enjoyable and unexpected coupling.

On HC005 the main novelty is an early recording of another fabled Torroba zarzuela, this time the three-act Azabache (1932), a gypsy romance set in Granada. The 1943 ten-side set made room for a curiousity - some comic banter between the composer and his two librettists about "writing an opera" - which may or may not add to the appeal.


The score is atmospheric, if not memorably melodious, though there is a pasacalle "chorus of the aviators" - rather more in the straightforward mode of Alonso's La Calesera than is Torroba's wont - and a good gypsy canción, well turned by Angelita Durán. Faustino Arregui's rich tenor makes the most of José's appealing Romanza, and this is altogether attractive.
The coupling, the classic 1930 recording of Caballero's La viejecita (The Old Lady") was coincidentally reissued a few months ago by Blue Moon, more sensibly yoked with the same composer's Gigantes y cabezudos. Although this has a soprano (Mercedes Melo) rather than a tenor in the central "Charley's Aunt" role of Carlos, it remains an essential collector's item, particularly as neither of the two LP versions is yet to be officially reissued on CD - BMG, please note!

The lilting, sophisticated score is in the same vein as Caballero's Los sobrinos del Capitan Grant, charming, witty and theatrically outrageous by turns, and it's hard to imagine it better played or performed. Comparisons reveal a difference in philosophy between Homokord and Blue Moon, whose transfer seems less doctored, with a livelier treble and much more surface noise. Against this, the smoother, more padded sound of the Homokord is easier to listen to - and comes with better documentation.

The last of these CD's (HC007) appears as a timely homage to Francisco Alonso, fifty years after his death in 1948. La zapaterita ("The Shoemaker's Girl") was one of his last successful zarzuelas, and the original 1941 cast moved straight from the Teatro Calderon into the studio to make this near-complete recording of their conductor's costume pastiche.

La zapaterita

The featherlight story revolves around one of the Spanish amours of Casanova, and is set in and around Aranjuez a year or two before the French Revolution. However frothy Mañes' libretto might be, Alonso's music is consistently delightful, whether engaged in courtly rococo-antique alla Massenet, heart-on-sleeve musical-comedy romance, or traditional popular dance mode.
The cast is led by the elegant Antonio Medio as Casanova, a performance memorable for graceful charm of vocal finesse, but honours are shared with Conchita Panadés as the heroine Manola and Charito Leonís as a lively Maid of Honour. There is a real whiff of greasepaint behind the whole set, and Alonso's orchestra play the piece for all it's worth. Unlike the rival BMG cast (1961, with Antonio Blancas in poor form) Alonso's company succeeds in making the whole add up to more than the sum of the parts, and the recording is vivid and natural for its day.

Two queries - the short orchestral finale is missing (was it not recorded?) and we are given an alternative jazz-band version of the catchy "Caballeros en plaza" directly after the original. Where is this from? It's well worth having, but why not as an encore, as the end of the disk leaves us somewhat in mid-air, without that finale. This aside, the Homokord presentation is excellent, with full synopsis, texts, and evocative production photos, notably of Medio and Panadés in full rococo fig.

Of these three excellent issues, perhaps this would be the one I would least care to be without, though I'd not want to be deprived of Sagi-Vela's Maravilla romanza - or a single note of La viejecita. Fonotron-Homokord deserve every success with these issues - and may the next installment in the series follow swiftly.

© Christopher Webber 1999

Homokord Historia de la Música lírica Española


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