COMPARATIVE CD REVIEW
Serrano's monastic melodrama in two acts remains one of his strongest, if not subtlest works. Its combination of verismo passion, monkish solemnity and local colour is a winning one, and evokes some of the composer's best tunes and most memorable roles. In particular, the dominant character of Rafael, the painter-libertine turned guilt-ridden monk, provides an opportunity, rare in zarzuela, to put the tenor through more than his customary lyric paces - Rafael is a cross between Don Alvaro in The Force of Destiny and Cavaradossi in Tosca.
Vendrell was the first Rafael, and we are lucky to have both his early sets available on Blue Moon, generously coupled with Moros y Cristianos. His first recordings with the original Dolores, Badia, are slightly tentative compared with the later sessions for Odeón, where he was joined by the tigerish Raga, a leading Carmen of her day. Redondo was on hand as the Prior, though mysteriously he did not record his duet with Vendrell, but with the artisan-toned Sempere. Alas, Blue Moon kick their own gift-horse in the mouth by transferring the Vendrell/Raga sides nearly a tone flat, with distressing results. Nonetheless, Vendrell's Rafael has never been equalled for dynamic and musical subtlety, and he demands to be heard as at least an adjunct to one of the more recent recordings.
Lavirgen on Hispavox is one of those tenors who is better than he sounds, insofar as he rises to the big occasions more thrillingly than we feared he might. But he's no Domingo. Especially not when Domingo (Alhambra) is caught in that first, fine, though never careless rapture, the voice full, baritonally rich and generous. Nor is he behind Lavirgen in putting over the passion of Rafael's moral dilemma in the famous Relato. Kraus was caught at his zenith here; and though Carillon's dry, close-miked recording does no favours to his comparatively astringent tone, many may prefer his much subtler reading to Domingo's.
Dolores, the wronged single mother, doesn't have so much to sing. Tourne provides her customary, sympathetic warmth. Berganza, though, brings an imaginative simplicity to her little lullaby (nana) which is extremely touching - and her duet with Domingo would surely convert even the most sceptical of zarzuel-agnostics. Chamorro sounds generalised in comparison to either, although she comes into her own in the duet with Kraus, the part seems marginally low-lying for her.
On the ecclesiastical front, Catania's Prior is stronger and better tuned than Contreras (Alhambra), whilst the lighter-weight Blancas sings much more beautifully than either. The comic couple duet with a better swing under Sorozábal for Hispavox than for Garcia-Navarro. Cava is much more lively with del Portal, though again Carillon's sound is dry to the point of anaemia. On balance the Alhambra recording wins out. The orchestra is far better, the recording richer than either of its modern rivals - and Domingo with Berganza in their youthful prime are unbeatable.
There is, sadly, a small fly in the holy ointment. Alhambra cut out about six minutes from what is only a half-hour score in the first place. Domingo loses not a note from his role, but an effective spoken passage between Rafael and the Prior over monastic chanting goes, together with the offstage choral festivo and the Prior's spoken meditation. The Intermezzo - a charming repeat of the offstage tenor song with the rondalla from the jota scene - is cut completely. The silver lining to this, though, is a substantial fill-up in the shape of Serrano's equally meritorious score for Los Claveles, again with Berganza and Domingo in top form. On Hispavox you just get 36 minutes of the main work, slightly cut. But as No.9 in their "La Zarzuela" series it is very, very cheap indeed. Only Carillon give us the score absolutely complete, with no filler, so the decision is a difficult one. The answer, I fear, is to get all three recordings: both Kraus on Carillon and BMG Domingo/Berganza, despite the cuts, have to be indispensable.
© Christopher Webber 2001