Plácido Domingo has lightly bewailed the fact that in zarzuela it's the baritone who tends to get the girl; and here he swallows his tenorial pride, undertaking two short but famous género chico roles in the lower register. Not for the first time, of course - Domingo started his career as a baritone way back in ... well, the astonishing thing is how fresh, youthful and agile his voice remains, despite so many strenuous Italian and Wagnerian exploits down the decades. Apart from some doubling the higher line in the revoltosa duet, and wittily transposing one phrase in the Gran Vía waltz, he sings Felipe and El Caballero de Gracía absolutely as written, without any sense of scraping the tonal barrel at the bottom of his range, his baritonal timbre well suited to both roles. Phrasing is specially felicitous, highlighting details of both scores which have sometimes escaped lesser singers: has the Caballero, for instance, ever sounded quite so louche and oily as here, let alone so mellifluous?
The virtues of this excellent release go far beyond Domingo's artistry. These are the first modern digital versions of works unaccountably missing from the fine Auvidis series, and happily they are very fine indeed. La revoltosa features a uniformly strong cast led by the popular María Rodriguez, whose Mari-Pepa matches her distinguished Felipe in the great dúo for musical subtlety. Her tone and timbre bring Dolores Perez to mind, and who could demand more? The three married suitors are well contrasted vocally (which also pays dividends when the same trio undertake the pickpockets in La Gran Vía) and work well as a team, as do their womenfolk. The most important of these musically is Soledad, her Guajiras attractively if a mite carefully taken by the smoky-toned Eneida G. Garijo.
The characterful Gorgonia, Marta Moreno, takes centre stage as Doña Virtudes in the notably full version of La Gran Vía, incidentally giving us the rare chance to hear the Mistress' riposte to her Maidservant's famous Tango. The music is identical, the words totally different, and the dramatic contrast is well worth savouring. La Menegilda herself is capably taken by Madrid stalwart Milagros Martín, even if she doesn't erase memories of Victoria de los Angeles' pert assumption, let alone the viscerally outrageous chanteuse Nati Mistral under Frühbeck de Burgos on BMG. That staple version omits Doña Virtudes and the central section of the Preludio, but like the current CD it does find room for the rarely heard Vals de la Seguridad and Pasodoble de los Sargentos. The new recording makes a stronger case for including these later additions as a matter of course, with Luis Álvarez's Policeman a special delight, chortling as he waltzes.
Miguel Roa's tempi are on the expansive side, which yields dividends in allowing the subtleties of Chapí's scoring for La revoltosa to be heard as never before; and although in the Quartet and some of the dances he occasionally misses some of the comedic excitement that Sorozábal brings to the work in his EMI-Hispavox version, the security and impact of the orchestral playing of the Madrid orchestra is a more than acceptable trade-off. In La Gran Vía Roa's extra spaciousness is all gain, crowned by a Chotis which is perhaps the most magnificent ever committed to record. María José Montiel's Eliseo is richly sung and - like Domingo's Caballero - superbly observed as a character, combining the maximum degree of stately pretension with touching hints of the vulgarity beneath. It's amusing to hear the conductor himself take the tiny role (vocally) of El Paseante, a nice touch which somehow exemplifies the relaxed spirit of this issue.
Though sonically not as sumptuous as the Auvidis series, RTVE's engineering is clear, unfussy and dynamically full. Even without its generous playing time and textual superiority, this disk would be a clear first choice for both zarzuelas. Although there are more hectic versions of La revoltosa, none is more satisfying as a musical whole; whilst Roa's La Gran Vía captures a sophisticated glow not heard since Capdevila's pioneering 1930 selection. Amongst modern versions this is the outright winner, a heart-warming CD which will doubtless form a staple part of any half-serious zarzuela collection for many years to come.
© Christopher Webber 2002