Reviewed by Christopher Webber
The Catalan tenor Emili(o) Vendrell was, for many, the greatest singer to devote himself exclusively to zarzuela in the years before the Civil War. His only firmly attested operatic role was, of all things, Wagner's Lohengrin, which he sang in Catalan with great success at Barcelona's Tívoli Theatre (1924). His textual clarity, vocal flexibility and range of colour remain a revelation to us moderns, battered as we are by a tradition of vocal pugilism light years removed from the bel canto of Vendrell and his contemporaries.
Aria have previously issued a double album devoted to songs, but the well-filled new set is if anything of even greater importance, presenting as it does much of Vendrell's recorded zarzuela output, including some very unusual items indeed. Quite aside from the intense satisfaction to be had from singing of such sustained beauty, Aria offer us such quality rarities as the two numbers from Luna's Dios salve al Rey - a failure, apparently, on account not of its score but its libretto - and fine romanzas by Millán and Zamacois amongst others.
What of the voice itself? Vandrell charms rather than bludgeons us into submission. We're in the presence of a warm but not effusive personality, subtly introverted (at times almost bashful) and totally engaging. His technical security is impressive, although listening to the set in one sitting - a thing all too easy to do! - inevitably spotlights limitations: the lack of a ringing 'top' to the voice, some mannered manipulation of pianissimos above the stave (though of course this was a chief glory) and a preference for relaxed tempi, slower than the dramatic ideal in numbers such as the dúo from Los gavilanes.
Otherwise, Vendrell is one of the chosen few able to transmute dross into gold; so here, working with material that is at worst conventional and at best inspired the results are a constant delight. No wonder his Italian rival and personal hero Tito Schipa was so worried by what he heard at a Buenos Aires Vendrell recital!
That Schipa anecdote ("Thank God he doesn't sing opera. If he did, more than one of us would have to retire ...") is one of several recalled in the excellent notes, fully translated from Catalan into Spanish and English. Joan Vilà i Miró's biography, vocal analysis and discography are well worthy of his subject. And though it would have been nice to have had complete song texts, Aria does provide worthwhile photographs of the tenor in a handful of his greatest roles.
Where to start? Well, Aria's rarely-heard 1924 version of his trademark romanza from Doña Francisquita is fresher and more straightforward than the classic remake of 1931, if not so richly varied. The 1929 sequence from Los claveles shows off Vendrells natural, unforced histrionic talents, whilst the simple, sensitive Song to Galicia from Zamacois' Margaritiña memorably restores a nearly forgotten zarzuelero back to the catalogue. Perhaps, though, Vendrell's famous rendering of Gustavo's "flor roja" from Los gavilanes takes pride of place. Singing of such poise, taste and sheer beauty is a rarity, even from that lost Golden Age.
My sole concern is that one or two tracks sound slightly depressed in pitch. In one case at least - the later set of La dolorosa highlights, assuredly first issued by Odeón a semitone wrong - suspicion turns to certainty. Sad to say, Aria have joined EMI/Regal (LP) and Blue Moon (CD) in failing to make the obvious and necessary correction. This small caveat (and one jumped groove in the Los Claveles escena) aside, Vilà's transfers are wonderfully smooth, clear and full, making this an essential purchase both for admirers of great singing, and for aficionados seeking rare repertoire to add to their hoards.
Vol.29 - José Palet Vol.2: Opera
Vol.29 is devoted to the second Aria have devoted to Catalan tenor, José Palet, a stalwart of the international opera circuit both sides of the Atlantic between 1900 and 1936. This compilation presents some fresh recordings from 1915-18, but zarzuela lovers will be chiefly attracted by a real rarity: the Italianate vengeance dúo: "¿Quién eres, responde?" (sung with baritone Inocencio Navarro) from Gaztambide's La conquista de Madrid, amongst his most famous works, but due to anti-semitic textual elements highly unlikely to be revived today. Beyond noting some excitable repeated cries of "¡sangre! ¡sangre!" which predate Verdi's Otello by nearly 20 years, there's nothing about it that's specially memorable.
Alas, Palet's singing of this and the other zarzuela items is not up to his operatic best, suffering from hectoring delivery and poor tuning. The best of them is Jesús's generously phrased homecoming from Gigantes y cabezudos. Palet sings with forthright, cleanly burnished tone here and throughout, albeit without any special individuality, a testament to the strength in depth of the Spanish tradition. Once again, transfers, notes and documentation - including a complete Palet discography - are of the highest standard.
But the Vendrell set ... ah, for that we are in Arias deep debt.
© Christopher Webber 2002