Legend has it that a good Spanish opera is rarer than a blue rose. It may seem odd that the culture which inspired a host of stage works as varied as Don Giovanni, Carmen and Il Trovatore has not to date produced even one repertory standard of its own. Of course in ignoring the fertile soil of zarzuela, Legend leaves many beautiful blooms out of the story. But the fact remains that apart from the one-acters by de Falla and Granados's own Goyescas no Spanish opera has achieved international fame.
Following on the rediscovery of Albéniz's stage legacy, exhumation of the unknown operas and zarzuelas of his two great contemporaries seems more likely. We're still waiting to re-evaluate de Falla's Los amores de la Inéz or his other zarzuelas on stage, and Granados's modernist experiments such as the Catalan-language Liliana and Blancaflor remain likewise locked away in publishers' bottom drawers; but last year Ireland's courageous Wexford Festival revived his early opera María del Carmen, the radio broadcast of which Marco Polo has now transferred to CD. Written in 1898 to a libretto by the Catalan playwright Feli i Codina, María del Carmen proved a major success in Madrid, where royal enthusiasm produced a Charles III Cross for its composer. Despite a ruder reception in Barcelona, due largely to its Murcian popular setting and Castilian text - not to mention that regal gong - many critics applauded Granados's achievement, particularly his skilful orchestration; but apart from a 1935 Teatre Liceu revival with Conchita Badia in the title role his score continued to gather dust until the Wexford staging.
On first hearing we might sympathise with that Barcelona audience's impatience as to the subject matter, a stale slice of rustic chivalry prettily disposed around the eternal baritone-soprano-tenor triangle. The plot reads like La pícara molinera minus the mezzo-soprano femme fatale; but its feeble denouement, in which the tenor, told by his doctor that he hasn't long to live, renounces his beloved María and hands her back to the baritone, doesn't match the effectiveness of Luna's late masterpiece. I can't comment on the poetic quality of José Feliu i Codina's text itself, because Marco Polo don't provide it. Given that seven pages of the booklet are given over (quite properly) to performer listings and biographies, to devote less than two to the synopsis of an unknown work seems a miscalculation. Justo Romero's pithy essay does something to redress the balance, but what would be acceptable documentation on the sister Naxos label is really not adequate at full price here.
As to the meat of the matter, Granados's through-written score owes much less to zarzuela grande than several writers have claimed, far more to the harmonic and structural procedures of Das Rheingold, filtered through the prism of Spanish popular style. Granados's admiration for the bold theatrical strokes of Mascagni's ground-breaking Cavalleria Rusticana (1999) is equally evident. As in so many tentative early operas by good composers, the most individual and striking moments come not in the shapeless principal scenes, but in the musical set pieces. Delicately orchestrated preludes, offstage choral tone poems, wedding festivities and religious processions all make their mark; and of the solo numbers the heroine's strophic entrance song, a bolero with exquisite alhambrismo inflections, stands out.
What Granados's mood music does not provide is consistent or distinct characters. María, caught between loyalty to her favoured (poor baritone) suitor and guilt towards the (rich tenor) rival he has wounded in a duel, does not fulfil her dramatic potential. Her men emote and posture, their music too etiolated to lift them memorably off the page. Neither these nor the supporting village types are individual or iconic enough to come to life. María del Carmen is always tastefully scored, mellifluous and refined; but like the early operas of Granados's contemporary Delius it fatally lacks a theatrical or dramatic motor.
Shorn of visual trappings, the singing at Wexford did not on this evidence rise much above the routine. Diana Veronese's soprano heroine is warm but too wobbly to provide much more than modified rapture, and neither Dante Alcalá's neat, light tenor nor Jesús Suaste's woollier baritone contrive to make bricks from Granados's vocal straw. The smaller roles are competently sung, the choral and orchestral contributions generally secure. Conductor Max Bragado-Darman was responsible for the ICCMU critical edition used here, and his wide experience in the dusty purlieus of the Spanish repertoire shows. Tempi and balances are well judged, and his firm grip on proceedings ensures we get a very good idea of Granados's intentions and orchestral mastery.
Is María del Carmen that elusive blue rose? Maybe stronger principals could make out a better case, but on this evidence it would seem Granados's favourite amongst his own operas is more of a wilting violet.
© Christopher Webber 2004