La Dolores

Decca- La Dolores

Bretón LA DOLORES. DECCA 466 060-2 (2CD)
Boxed set with notes, libretto and full translations
in Spanish, English, French and German.

Dolores - Elisabete Matos, Gaspara - Raquel Pierotti, Lázaro - Plácido Domingo, Celemin - Tito Beltrán, Melchor - Manuel Lanza, Sarjento Rojas - Stefano Palatchi, Patricio - Enrique Baquerizo, Arriero/Cantador - Santiago Calderón
Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu
Cor Infantil del Conservatori de Badalona
Rondalla y Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya

c. Antoni Ros Marbà

Tomás Bretón was uncomfortable with the idea that Spanish music theatre should begin and end with zarzuela, the dominant form of his era and one with which he grew increasingly impatient. The composer of the most celebrated sainete of all, La verbena de la Paloma, believed that the aesthetic scope of the one-act género chico was too limiting to provide the basis of a truly national operatic tradition. La Dolores (1895) has always been regarded as the best of his through-written stage works, and the appearance of this sumptuously cast and presented Decca recording is a major event in the discography of Spanish opera in general and Bretón in particular.

Decca and Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, for which the recording provides a highly appropriate centennial celebration, provide revealing essays from Emilio Casares and Victor Sánchez fully outlining the context and background to the work. Ironically, Bretón cannily ensured his opera's success by having the premiere at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, where it was the hit of the season, though it's clear that its impact was not limited to Spain. Productions in Latin America and Italy, as well as Prague in a German version conducted by the composer (1906), signally spread the fame of native Spanish opera.

But what sort of opera is it? Victor Sánchez emphasises its links with verismo, though La Dolores has very little in common with Puccini and Mascagni. The faithfulness of the libretto (put together by Bretón himself) to Feliú y Codina's original drama does give it a realistic richness of detail and amplitude which is rare in opera, and the "Spanishness" of the music is more than skin deep. This is a real ensemble opera, with no less than seven substantial principal roles - and the most celebrated number of all, the Jota, isn't led by any of them!

Tomas Breton Perhaps the complexity of its ambition works against La Dolores in some important ways. Ironically, the most memorable passages are the set pieces - such as that thrilling and prolonged Jota which makes up the finale to Act 1, and the harmonically daring nocturnal Preludio to Act 3 - which are closest to Bretón the zarzuelist. In these and several other places the music is given its head, takes imaginative wing, to an extent that Bretón's scrupulous integrity as to character, conversation and plot rarely allows in the main body of the work.

Indeed, the wicked thought recurs, that perhaps Bretón would have been better off setting the play as zarzuela, with liberal amounts of spoken dialogue, rather than as opera. Not that La Dolores is dull. Bretón is too much the professional for that. But is it really distinctive? Despite his knowledge and study of Wagnerian methods, a truly operatic musical focus seems lacking. What is missing is Wagner's instinct for theatricality, for showmanship.

Which brings us to the performance. Showmanship is certainly not lacking in the lavish casting of this studio recording, mostly made during a run of performances last year in Barcelona, with the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya under the firm and polished direction of Antoni Ros Marbá. Plácido Domingo has a generous slice of the vocal action, sounding amazingly youthful as the young seminary student who falls fatally for the heroine's charms, though the very top of his range is pardonably thin. His performance, like that of the popular Tito Beltrán - pleasantly neat in the subsidiary role of another of Dolores's admirers - is fully convincing both dramatically and musically.

Perhaps the three bass/baritone principals sound too alike in timbre, but all justify their presence. As Melchor, Manuel Lanza sounds vocally frayed for one so vibrantly youthful in the Auvidis El barberillo de Lavapiés only a year or two back, but his characterisation of this nasty little bit of work is convincing. Stefano Palatchi is suitably bluff and blustery for the braggart soldier, though perhaps a lighter voice might have made more of the comedy. Enrique Baquerizo brings his customary firm musicality and vocal distinction to the rich old man, Patricio. These two Comedy Suitors get as good crack of the whip as any of the others, which makes their omission from the billing on the box cover unfortunate. The experienced Raquel Pierotti makes bricks from straw as the patrona of the Inn where the action unfolds.

I wish I could tell you more about La Dolores herself, Elisabete Matos, who is a new name to me. We get a full libretto in four languages (a very good English translation by Susannah Howe) but Decca's otherwise admirable presentation finds no room for any biographical words on Ms Matos, or indeed any of her colleagues. She is very well cast, vocally full and rich if occasionally unwieldy in tone, and her characterisation encompasses Dolores's shifts from flirtatious banter, through trembling guilt, to anger and passion as the bloody climax of the opera approaches.

Ultimately though, there is something lacking in her performance, and indeed the whole set. Charisma? Possibly. Spontaneity? Certainly. The culminatory duet with Domingo doesn't rise to the emotional heights of an old "bootleg" tape of a BBC relay of a 1975 Liceu performance with Mirna Lacambra and Pedro Lavirgen, and somehow the new Decca set often sounds a mite overcooked. The sound is clear, but gives the impression of a slight constriction of dynamic range.

Nevertheless, this is a highly recommendable set of a deeply considered work of a quality and seriousness which command more than respect. The generous playing length - CD two is over 81 minutes long! - adds to the attractions of a first-class issue. If you need to be convinced, listen to the scintillating ensemble of the Jota-finale to Act 1, or best of all the unforgettable shifting harmonies and painterly orchestration of the Act 3 Notturno-Preludio. La Dolores is a necessary acquisition for anyone interested in Spanish musical theatre, and Decca has not let her composer down.

© Christopher Webber 1999