Perhaps the most celebrated of all Spanish conductors, Enrique Fernández Arbós (1863-1939) was better known early in his career as a violinist and composer. Although some of his orchestrations (notably the suite drawn from Albéniz's Iberia) have remained in the repertoire, Arbós' original compositions have sunk without trace. Now the Madrid Symphony Orchestra are celebrating their centenary in three boxed sets of their founder's music, backed by the City Council and handsomely produced by Verso. Two issues are devoted to Arbós' chamber and orchestral works, but zarzuelistas will feel specially grateful for MSO's revival of his sole stage work, the zarzuela El centro de la tierra ("The Centre of the Earth",) first performed in 1894.
It's not hard to see why the Apolo audience found El centro de la tierra such a pill. Lucio and Monasterio's scenario sounds unpromising enough: three residents of a Madrid pensión - accordion-playing Román, housekeeper Pura and grumpy ex-military man Don Dorotheo - fall down a crevice to the earth's core where they are greeted as Gods, bathed in the Fountain of Youth and escape at the eleventh hour with a diamond of inestimable price, thanks solely to Román's tuneful playing. Unlike Carrión's for Los sobrinos... or Janacek's for Mr Broucek's Excursions the lightweight libretto is not enlivened by satire, and Temes's shy suggestion of a parallel with The Magic Flute is the most wishful of thinking. What with inadequate rehearsal and a plethora of dance scenes for a ballet troupe which chose that week to go on strike, little wonder the premiere was a disaster. Having laboured a whole year on his score during an extended working trip to London (1893-4), Arbós felt disinclined to repeat the experience and never again wrote for the stage.
Now we have the chance to evaluate its music isolated from the pitfalls of stage production, El centro de la tierra emerges as a tasteful connoisseur's piece, lacking red-blooded drama but quietly pleasurable for armchair listening. Most numbers build on dance forms familiar from género chico zarzuela (such as the mazurca, habanera and chotis) or from French ballet; but though the harmonic language is conservative a direct quote from Tristan und Isolde early in the Act 1 Preludio gives us the clue to Arbós' broader musical sympathies. The vocal numbers are often overlong and overworked, revealing technical skill but theatrical inexperience. The many orchestral preludios, intermedios and bailables tell a different story, their exquisite thematic material and jewelled orchestrations closer to the world of Delibes or the lighter Saint-Saens than Chueca or Chapí.
Arbós' achievement here recalls that of Albéniz; and though the younger man's work lacks the depth and harmonic originality of that master there's plenty in El centro de la tierra to please the palette, notably the Act 2 "elemental ballet" consisting of three dances for Gold, Magnet-and-Steel (with violin solo) and Salt.
A more experienced cast could not be imagined, with Luis Álvarez's staunch Don Doroteo making the most of his martial material and Emilio Sánchez doing his best to make the accordion-playing Román less of a vocal cipher. Arbós incorporates the accordion itself into a couple of numbers, to pleasant effect. Milagros Martín adds a larger-than-life Pura, and the other roles are well done - notably Javier Franco's beautifully sung and projected High Priest. Antonio Fauró's MSO Chorus make the most of their opportunities in Madrid crowd scenes, underworld evocations and pagan rituals, and altogether it is hard to imagine a better case being made out for such an unfairly forgotten work.
El centro de la tierra may not be a lost masterpiece, but it is an ambitious score put together by a master musician whose fame as a conductor shouldn't blind us to his compositional gifts. Verso provide full documentation with articles, commentaries and biographies translated into generally idiomatic English, as well as a complete libretto in Spanish. We also get a delightful bon bouche in the shape of a 25 minute piano reduction made from five of the finest orchestral pieces, very stylishly played by Fernando Turina. Add this to the 100 minutes and more of the original score and we have two well-filled and lovingly presented CDs, which anyone curious to sample something beyond the tried and tested zarzuela repertoire should snap up while they have the chance.
© Christopher Webber 2005