Catalan zarzuela and Millán volumes

Aria Volume 17

Barcelona's Aria Recording may be a pocket-sized company, but their series Les nostres veus retrobades (Englished as "Our recovered voices") is precisely the kind of enterprise that the megalithic corporations of the recording world seem these days to shy away from. Aria present us with a fine crop harvested from the rich archives of Spanish singing in the first half of the century. Currently stretching to twenty one volumes, the series is mainly devoted to fine artists such as Barrientos, Vendrell, Redondo, Fleta and Pareto, but also features complete performances and a couple of compendium issues.

Zarzuela is much in evidence, of course, and two of the most recent volumes give us the chance to hear early recordings of some fascinating material. Aria's house style may be graphically plain, but they offer very generous programming, with equally full and informed annotations and synopses in Catalan, Spanish - and in (nearly always) comprehensible English translation. Thank you Aria!

The tradition of the Catalan zarzuela is very little known. Revivals are rare, even in Barcelona, and so Volume 17 - La Sarsuela Catalana is extremely welcome. We hear substantial extracts from two little known stage works from the 1920's by Enric Morera, whose Don Joan de Serralonga and Baixant de la Font del Gat on this evidence are attractive, theatrically viable scores, though they lack the last ounce of musical personality. They are complemented by very full selections from Martínez Valls' two best known sarsuelas, the musically robust Cançó d'amor i de guerra and memorable La Legió d'Honor, recorded around the time of the Barcelona premieres in 1926 and 1930. A song each from Pel Teu Amor (Ribas) and Gent del Camp (Ferrés) make up this strong and generous collection.

The great Catalan tenor Emili Vendrell is very much centre stage. These recordings catch him consistently in his prime, and for beauty of timbre and sheer musicality that prime was a match for any lyric tenor in Europe. Joan Vilá's notes tell us that the Don Joan and Pel Teu Amor extracts remain "one of the best singing lessons ever recorded in our country" - or any other, we might add. His impeccable taste contrasts with Joan Rosich's more conventional idea of sobbing theatricality in Legió d'Honor - though here again intonation is rock solid and tone well nourished. The transfers from 78's are notably good, fuller and cleaner in the two Valls works than on the recent Blue Moon reissue of the same material - which in any case gives us short measure.

El Dictador (1923)

Volume 20 features the husband and wife partnership of Emilio Sagi Barba and Luisa Vela in two legendary works by Rafael Millán, El Dictador (1923) and La Dogaresa (1920), recorded under the composer soon after their premieres, again in Barcelona. Sagi Barba was very much the leading Spanish baritone of the pre-Civil War period, creating many of the great roles in the repertoire. It is easy to hear why. His pungent, firm, virile tone and extraordinary technical control are heard to superb advantage in these acoustic recordings, and the stirring, romantic Canción de la carta in El Dictador is as fine an example of his work as I've heard.

Millán was one of the Young Lions of the twenties, and his mental collapse in 1925 at the age of 32 shocked Spain. He recovered sufficiently to present one last opus just before his death well over a quarter of a century later, but the musical world he knew had vanished beyond recall. Not surprisingly, a sense of What Might Have Been is poignantly present as we listen to these two scores. Remarkably little allowance has to be made for the sound. Barcelona was very much at the cutting edge of recording technology throughout the twenties and thirties, and the recordings have come up extremely well indeed in Joan Vilá's skilfully undemonstrative transfers.

The Italian melodrama of La Dogaresa - the plot is by Rigoletto out of A Tale of Two Cities and Notre Dame - keeps Millán's name alive today. There is a good complete performance under Argenta available on BMG Classics, though BMG provide nothing in the way of notes. The original cast recording presents nearly all the score, and the romantic atmosphere of Millán's highly skilled writing isn't short changed. The Serenata veneciana - sung with proper delicacy by Arturo de Castro - comes over fresh as paint, and the memorable final duet for heroine and anti-hero is all the better for the vocal finesse of Sagi Barba and Vela, who gauges the restrained passion to a nicety.

El Dictador with its Russian setting was the obvious model for Katiuska seven or so years later, and the success of Sorozábal's masterpiece accounts for its later eclipse. There isn't a modern recording, but in any case it would be difficult to imagine it better done than it is here. The three duets for hero and heroine are notably fine, but there is also a stirring Song of Liberty (does the English translation "The land fecundated by the sower" quite paint the picture, I wonder?) and an atmospheric orchestral Battle-Finale, with tripple tonguing trumpets and thunderous drums.

Memorable singing from the Golden Age, finely transferred - yes, but neither of these CD's should be thought of as being for specialists only. The excellent annotation, plus the provision of photographs of artists and stage productions, adds to the great musical pleasure to be had from either of them. At over 73 and 77 minutes, they offer great value for money, and Aria deserve every encouragement to go on to issue even more of this irreplaceable pre-LP material.

© Christopher Webber 1999

Aria Recording

SL 1024 La Sarsuela Catalana
SL 1027 El Dictador - La Dogaresa

other issues in the series of particular interest to the zarzuela:
SL 1008 Los nostres veus retrobades - Vol.1 (zarzuela and opera anthology)
SL 1011 Doña Francisquita (Vendrell, Pérez Carpio, Herrero, Palacios)
SL 1007 Marina (2 CD complete - Capsir, Lázaro, Redondo, Mardones; plus highlights with Fleta, Revenga, Sagi Barba)
SL 1016 Mercedes Capsir (including some rare zarzuela songs)
SL 1015 Bohemios / Los Gavilanes (Redondo, Raga, Vendrell)
SL 1018 Marcos Redondo (zarzuela duets)
SL 1022 Los nostres veus retrobades - Vol.2 (opera, zarzuela and songs)
SL 1028 Miguel Fleta - Vol.3 (zarzuela and songs)

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