El mejor álbum
Of the two zarzuela 'majors', EMI have been much more alert than rivals BMG at remarketing their old LP recordings, mainly inherited from the Hispavox company. Smoothly remastered and stylishly presented, the 26 mid-price CDs of EMI's Zarzuela series set a standard which make them a great basis for a representative collection. This generous 2-CD compilation is primarily drawn from the series, but draws on extra resources - famous recital discs by Victoria de los Ángeles and Plácido Domingo, and 78s by the great pre-war tenor Miguel Fleta, who created the role of Calaf in Puccini's Turandot.
Who is it aimed at? Clearly not the aficionado, who will already have most if not all of the complete recordings. The title ("The world's best zarzuela album") is an example of an age-old, harmless ploy, aimed at people who wish to possess just one CD set to encapsulate a whole world of music. Prettily presented, though lacking texts or commentary, it certainly makes an attractive taster for EMI's series.
The compilation covers the field, with highlights from the most famous works of 18 leading composers. It's difficult to argue against the logic of most selections, but in truth this mixture of popular preludios, romanzas, dúos and coros is a bit of a grab-bag, with no consistent chronology either as to the works themselves, or the recordings, which vary greatly in sonic quality. There are also some patently bleeding chunks - for example the opening two minutes only of the habanera from La verbena de la Paloma; and a brutal cut-off at the end of the opening chorus to El barberillo de Lavapiés, which leads queasily into Pedro Lavirgen's lusty rendition of the romanza from Doña Francisquita.
How many selections justify the "world's best" tag? The three de los Ángeles tracks with Frühbeck, certainly, as witness the charm of her zapateado from La tempranica. Domingo's, too, come pretty close; though it's a mite perverse to include three baritone songs at the expense of further tenor selections from his excellent 1988 disc under Moreno Buendía. The preludios and intermedios are conducted with demonic fire and pace by Sorozábal. Alfredo Kraus's "Bella enamorada" from El último romantico distils that spinto elegance which makes him for many the finest of all zarzuela tenors. Pilar Lorengar and Renato Cesari remain unsurpassed for melancholy intensity in the La del manojo de rosas dúo-habanera.
Most of the rest are at least serviceable, and serious disappointments are few. The chosen version of the "Parasol Mazurka" from Luisa Fernanda is Torroba's sugary revision, with some soupy orchestral counterpoint and a nasty key change for the second verse. EMI caught Marcos Redondo in his twilight years for La parranda (1962), but his inimitable baritone compensates for tonal decline with stylish line and musicality. The Fleta items are from the end of his career, too, when the stentorian voice showed signs of wear and tear. His command remains imperious, but it's all a little strenuous on the ear and makes for a curious coda to the set.
© Christopher Webber, 2003