Ambition is a two-edged sword. Certainly, as Browning's Andrea del Sarto inimitably put it, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?" Yet when the grasp is as weak as Chapí's in his last attempt at reaching for the elusive Heaven of Spanish Opera, the attempt is not uplifting. The effort of writing Margarita la tornera may have hastened the composer's death, a bare month after the 1909 premiere. As for the effort of listening to it ... válgame Dios!
The scenario is potent. The nun Margarita, tornera (doorkeeper) of a convent in Palencia, is seduced by our old friend Don Juan, who is soon off after another conquest, the worldly dancer Sirena. Margarita selflessly defends him, allowing him to escape from justice after wounding Sirena's current lover at a party. Returning to Palencia two years later, she rejects her now-chastened lover once and for all, and entering the convent miraculously finds "Margarita la tornera" apparently still in her place - it is the Virgin herself, who has answered Margarita's prayers. As in Chapí's zarzuela grande El milagro de la Virgen, where the heroine's horrific earthly tragedies are finally revealed as a dream, Margarita is not so much redeemed from sin as simply wiped clean. The subtext raises questions about the worth of abstinence over indulgence, of innocence over experience, of spiritual over earthly passion.
He starts, though, with the affirmation that "Chapí ... is undoubtedly the most important Spanish composer of stage music of all time." Fighting talk! If sheer quantity, technical know-how and stylistic range are his criteria, it's difficult to argue. But the range of Iberni's stylistic references - Puccini and verismo, Ponchielli, Wagner, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss - gives a fairer picture of Margarita's problem than his quixotic thought that, had Chapí not died when he did, "it is very likely that his career wouldn't have been very different to that of Janacek, the only European composer of his generation who meets his standards in regard to theatrical music".
One thing Janacek had, even as a clumsy young tyro, which Chapí did not - an individual voice. Despite his theatrical intelligence, harmonic-contrapuntal sophistication and orchestral brilliance, this particular Chapí score is pretty much dead in the water. Even in a heavily compressed stage version such as we have here, the pervasive lack of thematic distinction is impossible to disguise. There are some effective moments, such as the magic, shifting harmonics of the descending string theme associated in the outer acts with Margarita's prayers to the Virgin, or the lucid sequence of woodwind arpeggios signalling the miracle itself; but nothing strikes deep. Most of the score is just efficiently emotive, no better or worse than those forgotten French and Italian operas of the day which Margarita so closely resembles in formal and melodic cut.
Iberni points to the one outstanding number, the seductive, Andalusian Zaraband led by Sirena in the party scene of Act 2, as evidence of a strong influence on de Falla's Spanish style. But it's worth pointing out that the first version of La vida breve was written five years before, under the influence of Giménez's La tempranica. Chapí was a consolidator, and the historical debt owed him by Spanish music is indeed great; but his worth today as a composer is better measured by the concentrated inspiration of the best zarzuelas such as La revoltosa, La bruja or (reputedly) Curro Vargas, than by this ambitious but lacklustre score.
Margarita's is the central consciousness, and Elisabete Matos copes valiantly with the length and difficulty of the role. Her involvement in the last act, with its earthly rejection and miraculous apotheosis, almost carries the day. Plácido Domingo is a modern miracle on his own, a little thinner in tone than of yore, but still beautifully focussed and controlled. His portrait of Don Juan is sympathetic and passionate enough to make Margarita's choice a real and painful one.
Ángeles Blancas delivers her hit number with seductive steel, though Sirena's worldly call is limited by the swingeing cuts. Only Stefano Palatchi's Leporello-equivalent falls short, sung with unremitting heaviness - though in fairness Chapí saddles Gavilán with much of the most earthbound music. The late García Navarro leads his forces with such authoritative conviction that it's impossible to think Chapí could have had better advocacy in the pit. After all is said and done, this is a set which anyone interested in Spanish theatre music ought to hear, especially when the performance itself is so urgent and direct. Just don't expect ambition to reach to a revelatory masterpiece.
© Christopher Webber 2003