La niña del boticario
This is a curiosity. Jumilla-born Julián Santos (1908-1983) was a respected solo pianist, a friend of nationally-known musicians such as Ernesto Halffter, and composer of more than 500 works including a prize-winning zarzuela Los gerifaltes (1951), also to a text by doctor-writer and fellow Jumillan Guardiola. Their two-act opereta, accounted by his pupil Julián Molina Santos' most important work, was written in his sixties but not performed until five years after his death.
They don't provide a libretto, but Molina's programme note includes a full and clear synopsis. The plot, set in the Madrid of Philip IV, has a familiar ring - beautiful soprano (eponymous chemist's daughter) rejects respectable baritone suitor (worthy doctor) in favour of clandestine attachment to young tenor (impoverished student) but after comedic entanglements, all is straightened out by clever tenor's friend (here his tutor). There's also a Corregidor who seems to owe something to his jobs-sake in Los burladores, and the inevitable Heroine's Nurse.
Does the music do anything to personalise the standard template? A little. La niña ... begins promisingly, with a richly harmonised Introducción, somewhat in the manner of early de Falla, setting the scene for a warm night in romantic Madrid. There are some good tunes, notably a catchy signature aria (sic.) for the Doctor and a stirring, Pucciniesque dúo for the hero and heroine. There is nothing shoddy about Santos' work. His orchestral handling is always adept - but his music is often predictable, anodyne and dramatically mute. It's an oddly atavistic score for the 1960's. The Fallaesque opening and a surprising modal conclusion apart, you'd put money on La niña ... being a forgotten minor work from the early 1900's.
The recording doesn't help matters. This too has curiosity value, having been made partly in Russia with the highly dependable Urals orchestra, and partly in a Madrid studio. To what degree this implies vocal dubbing it's impossible to know, but the sound certainly gives me the impression of a recessed band in one country, and forward soloists (synthetic acoustic and all) in quite another. I hope I'm wrong, but that would also account for some painfully cautious tempi, which fail to make the most of Santos' more lively numbers.
Working under a singer of the stature of Julián Molina inspired his soloists to give of their best to Santos' often grateful vocal lines. Ángeles Blancas' distinctive soprano commands steel as well as velvet, and her niña is as well matched both with Luis Dámaso's beautifully produced lyric tenor (at times an eerie avatar of Domingo no less!) and Rodrigo Esteve's grainy baritone, rich and even throughout the range. Of the rest, Marco Moncloa's youthfully oak-hewn Corregidor stands out as a precise piece of characterisation.
I don't wish to seem unsmiling about this genial, gentle opereta which is certain to give a glow of nostalgic pleasure to those listeners generous enough to forgive some slack tempi and the eccentric Ekaterinburg recording. It's tempting to conclude that the place which consigned the Last of the Czars to history was highly appropriate to dispatch this near-Last of the Zarzuelas; but in hope that EMI might give the enterprising Molina and his team a chance to prove their mettle on more absorbing material, La niña del boticario deserves a - somewhat glacial - welcome.
© Christopher Webber 2003