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José De Eusebio’s labours to refloat Albéniz’s operatic boats have marked him out as a modern Hercules. After the massive Merlin’s unlikely triumph on CD, stage and DVD, and lower-key revivals of Henry Clifford and San Antonio de la Florida for CD and stage respectively, comes perhaps his most heroic achievement to date. Excepting the English operetta The Magic Opal, Pepita Jiménez was the composer’s sole stage work to make any sort of splash at the time of its original launch. He revised it twice after the 1896 Barcelona premiere, firstly for publication and a Prague revival that same year, and then – in the light of some hints and tips in orchestration from Paul Dukas – for a successful Brussels production in 1905. Its Spanish theme and domestic setting place Pepita Jiménez squarely at the centre of Albéniz’s musical world, and whatever its problems it remains far and away his most concentrated and congenial stage work, both in style and content.
Juan Valera’s popular 1874 novel earned him and his heroine a statue in Madrid’s Recoletos. It is the slight story of a young seminarian, Don Luis de Vargas, who falls in love with a rich widow and has to choose between her and the church. Valera saw that an internalised struggle between sacred and profane was hardly the stuff of opera (“If Mozart were to set Pepita Jiménez to music, Mozart would create a fiasco”) but bowed to the composer’s plea to allow Francis Burdett Money-Coutts to fashion his novel into an English libretto. The literary talents of Albéniz’s benefactor and collaborator have proved an easy target down the years, but in truth he didn’t do too badly by Valera, condensing what action there is into a single Fiesta-day and simplifying the motives of the major characters. Despite its verbally eccentric attempt at light, comedic conversational flow, his libretto gave the composer a golden opportunity to combine atmosphere, reflective soliloquy and set-piece ensemble. As Walter Aaron Clark concludes in his impressively documented booklet note, this opera stands or falls on the quality of its music alone, and Money-Coutts certainly did not hamstring the composer before he started.
The two previous recorded stage versions, by Pablo Sorozábal (1964) and Josep Soler (1996), moved a long way away from what Albéniz actually wrote, the one towards verismo blood-and-thunder, the other towards neo-classical chamber music; and though they may have had their reasons, the revelation of De Eusebio’s recording is that for the first time we get to hear the original, complete and unadulterated. It stands. All is delicate, and much is inspired – notably the Act 2 children’s chorus (“Born into common humility”) and ballet, and the citrus-scented, nocturnal fiesta sequence which follows, culminating in Don Luis’ hypnotic “Love moves by night!...”. Altogether Pepita Jiménez is distinguished by its melodic generosity, harmonic sophistication and symphonic tightness. Nor does criticism of Albéniz’s technical skill as an orchestrator hold water. When it is as sympathetically directed and performed as here, means and execution seem perfectly attuned to ends.
Yet doubts remain. Much debate has centred on the opera’s dramatic viability as it stands; and despite Clark’s special pleading, it must be admitted that the ending is fudged – if Pepita has tried to kill herself, what will be the outcome of Don Luis’ last-minute intervention? But in all honesty this is a side issue. That vulgar instinct for communication which makes a Verdi, a Puccini or even (ducking for cover) a Sorozábal reach out across the footlights and grab us by the throat, is absent. Everything serves Albéniz’s musical rather than theatrical sense. His characters are pale ghosts, rarely involving us in their red-blooded situations or feelings. He is a singer’s nightmare, too, garbling what sense there may be in Money-Coutts’ admittedly tricky prosody – no wonder Sorozábal was determined to provide such fragrant music with a Spanish text, rewriting the vocal lines to render them more grateful. Nor does the orchestration thin out sufficiently to allow the soloists much respite from unwavering forte delivery. This intensifies the ennui promoted by so much remorseless charm. For these reasons Pepita Jiménez – like Schumann’s Genoveva or Delius’ Fennimore and Gerda – may be doomed to the half-light as a beautiful work more honoured in the breach than the observance. Crucially, it lacks the common touch. The final effect is of a watercolour sketch of an opera, rather than the real thing.
All praise, though, for De Eusebio’s championship of what is at the very least a delectable score. Pacing is perfectly judged, orchestral-vocal balances good as Albéniz allows. His readings of the Act 2 ballet and Interlude are fastidious. Neither playing, choral singing nor up-front recording leave anything to be desired. Some of the soloists do. Frail tone, uncertain tuning and murky diction make Carol Vaness a trial in the title role. Her two, gorgeous solos here reflect all too realistically Pepita’s moral queasiness. Paradoxically her Spanish colleagues get the text across much more vividly. Enrique Baquerizo has no problems painting the easy urbanity of the hero’s father, but the need to crank up his velveteen bass to high baritone pushes him on occasion out of his vocal comfort zone. As on so many recent recordings, Plácido Domingo sounds eerily youthful in the underwritten role of Don Luis. His radiantly-sung “Love moves by night!...” is a desert-island highlight, although Jane Henschel’s worldly-wise Antoñona – mainspring of what plot there is – is every bit as involving. Vocally and verbally secure, she does wonders bringing text and music to life: it’s hardly Henschel’s fault that this old wet-nurse sounds younger than her mistress. On the side of the angels, Carlos Chausson contributes a rock-solid Vicar, José Antonio López a nicely vacuous Count Genazahar. The cast list confuses the pair of Officers: No.1 is in fact sung by tenor Ángel Rodríguez, No.2 by baritone Federico Gallar, not the other way round. Both, more to the point, are admirable.
DG’s presentation and booklet are alike stylish and utile, with De Eusebio himself contributing a lucid essay on the work’s dramaturgical and musical history. Although both he and to a greater extent Clark are guilty of protesting too much – not least at the expense of Sorozábal, whose sweeping re-ordering of elements makes for an experience as different as cheese from chalk – the case for Albéniz’s own last thoughts on the score could hardly be better put, either in theory or practise. Few listeners may feel minded to throw out their treasured LPs with Teresa Berganza, Inés Rivadeneira, Antonio Blancas and Julián Molina in that epic 1964 version; but the original Pepita Jiménez has a fresh, poetic zarzuela-like charm which Sorozábal’s heavier, better-made drama does not match. Despite its vocal flaws, José De Eusebio’s beautiful reading must now take pride of place.
© Christopher Webber 2006