Marco Polo CD box set: 8.225084
Reviewed by ANDREW LAMB
Jesús Guridi's El caserío has served to identify him as one of the most serious-minded and cultured composers of zarzuela. Not for him the rousing, heart-on-sleeve melodies of Alonso or Guerrero. Rather, Guridi concentrated on atmospheric situations and personal emotions. Orchestral CD collections have confirmed his use of gritty textures, spare orchestral colouring and evocative use of melodic strands. The historic 1959 collection under Jesús Arrámbarri introduced us to two orchestral excerpts from his three-act lyric drama Amaya - the Act 1 'Full Moon' and the Act 2 'Sword Dance' with its Basque flute and side-drum. It's Guridi's most ambitious creation, and it's a most welcome surprise for Marco Polo to give us the chance to hear the work complete.
Produced in 1920 after ten years' work, the opera is set in the eighth century and represents the struggle of Christianity to oust traditional religious beliefs in northern Spain. That struggle is personified by the dilemma of Amaya (soprano) to choose between rival suitors - Teodosio (tenor), who embraces Christianity, and Asier (bass), who represents the worship of gods of nature such as the sun and moon. Whichever wins Amaya's hand will be crowned King of Vasconia and thereby determine the destiny of the Basques. In Act 1, Amaya's priestess aunt Amagoia (mezzo-soprano) pleads the cause of her absent ward Asier. In Act 2, Amaya marries Teodosio, but Asier returns and claims his right to her hand. Act 3 provides a diversion by introducing a popular Basque legend with a gory murder. In an Epilogue, past-the-post wrangles are finally resolved not Bush-Gore fashion by a vote of the Supreme Court, but by Asier being thrown from his horse and embracing Christianity with his dying breath.
If the religious content and even the Spanish setting suggest Wagner's Parsifal, it is indeed Wagnerian music drama that very much comes to mind in listening to the score. Ultimately, though, it's Guridi himself who asserts his individuality. Even in this major operatic work, it's the sound he draws from the orchestra that most immediately attracts attention - right from the prelude that so evocatively captures the sun going down over the sea. The 'Singing by the light of the moon' theme it introduces reappears as a Leitmotiv throughout Act 1, and Basque song and dance forms are at the root of much of the score. Act 3 and the Epilogue have much dark, stormy music; but the waves of orchestral sound as Asier embraces Christianity provide an uplifting experience. The vocal writing throughout is powerful and demanding, but that final scene is especially moving.
Though the libretto was written originally in Spanish, Guridi worked on the score in a Basque translation. That translation is used in this recording from performances at the Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao in June 1998, and it's a surprise to find that the cast is by no means exclusively Basque. I wouldn't presume to say how well they all cope with the language. As for the voices, I can imagine more heroic tones than César Hernández produces for Teodosio, but Rebecca Copley is a thoroughly convincing Amaya, alternately lyrical and dramatic. The lower voices of Marianne Cornetti, Rosendo Flores and Carlos Conde are consistently excellent in their extended contributions. The conductor, Theo Alcántara, draws exciting, full-blooded, contributions from the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society.
The informative annotator, Santiago Gorostiza, sensibly does not seek to claim that Amaya will ever become a repertory piece outside the Basque country. However, operatic seasons in the region are likely to attract increased international attention as a result of this hugely rewarding Marco Polo release.
© Andrew Lamb
.... and a second opinion by CHRISTOPHER WEBBER
I was greatly looking forward to hearing Amaya. Guridi's craftsmanship is never in doubt; his orchestration, notably well executed by the Bilbao Orchestra, is of copybook clarity; but his best music has an uplifting, poetic sensitivity which finds too few outlets in this doom-laden, dark age myth. The lunar Pagan Rites, the surging rhythmic vitality of the Espatadantza sword-dance at the Wedding Feast, and the sweet but not sugary Redemption music in the Epilogue are points of light in the general gloom. His vocal writing - in so far as a non-Basque speaker can judge these things - sounds fluid and natural, but memorable moments are rare. The delicate poise of the heroine's scena before her wedding in Act 2, and Teodosio's touching narration towards the end of the opera stand out as exceptions.
It adds to Guridi's difficulties that the libretto is clumsily structured, its focus ill-defined. Who is at the centre of Amaya? Not the heroine, a piece of dramatic furniture throughout. Her husband Teodosio, an Orestes who undergoes a Tannhäuser-like redemption, is more complex; the most striking dramatic event is the death-rock repentance of the pagan villain of the piece, Asier. Paradoxically, the introduction of an offstage narrative chorus in the Epilogue brings more telling musical results than the onstage characters ever manage. This lack of dramatic cogency and momentum mitigates against an undeniably absorbing and well-crafted score.
The Marco Polo performance is accomplished, with Rosendo Flores especially good as the mendacious Asier. The recording is exemplary. Guridi admirers will respond to Amaya's moments of dark beauty, as well as the sweetness and light of the Epilogue. Newcomers would be better advised to seek out the fully mature Diez melodías vascas and Basque Scenes, available in brilliant modern sound under both Plasson and Gomez Martinez. Better still, take the plunge with his great zarzuela El caserío. Guridi working quickly with the two leading zarzueleros of the day proved a more supple dramatist than the self-conscious operatic labourer of Amaya.