– El Caserío
Have the glory days departed? There’s a nagging suspicion that the last of the great opera and zarzuela recordings were done and dusted about thirty five years ago. Why make, say, a new Katiuska, when we can listen to Redondo-Herrero or Ausensi-Penagos at the touch of a button? Gone are the days when each generation could expect to prove its (wo)manhood in the recording studio. In our aurally saturated culture, live experience and its derivatives find themselves once more the shining standard, against which studio CD recordings offer little. In a world where records are cheaper in real terms than ever before, it’s idle to pretend that the Naxos release of El caserío is going to be devoured with the relish of its much-savoured predecessors under Ataulfo Argenta and Federico Moreno Torroba.
Yet this new reading has its points. It is just about possible to construct an integral Caserío by combining the two LP classics – both happily still available on CD – but at a whisker under 80' the Bilbao version is absolutely complete and should now become the reference version of choice. Then how timely to be reminded what a great score this is, consistently high in quality and with its Basque rhythms and impressionist harmonies so refreshingly different from the mainstream Madrileño zarzuela repertoire. A vital, thrilling recording from Naxos enables us to hear Guridi’s orchestral subtleties and dynamic range as never before. Technically the new version knocks spots off its pale and crumbly predecessors, and although Juan José Mena’s sometimes inflexible direction doesn’t inspire his capable players to emulate Argenta’s rhythmic plasticity or Torroba’s fiercer passions he still generates plenty of dramatic momentum.
The principal singers don’t challenge memories of their immortal forbears. On the strength of a searing late-1960’s Las golondrinas under Torroba (not to mention La villana opposite Caballé, Don Juan in Los Burladores under its composer Sorozábal, and much else) the late Vicente Sardinero numbers amongst those immortals himself. By 2001 – the year before his death – baritonal lustre and stamina had understandably faded to a light of former days; but like Ausensi and Sagi-Vela before him Sardinero does convey Santi’s nobility and wisdom, and the final renunciation of his young niece’s hand is touching beyond its tributary aspect. As to that niece, Ana Rodrigo’s warm and even tone are more reliable than her tuning in the strained higher reaches. Once again, though, she puts the character across – as most assuredly does the excellent Emilio Sánchez, a virile José Miguel always pleasant on the ear. All that’s missing is that admixture of guilty conscience supremely conveyed by Carlo del Monte under Torroba. The minor roles and choral interpolations are more than adequately done.
In truth no modern El caserío could have been expected to sweep the board, and I’ll be surprised to find anybody throwing out their old EMI or BMG records any time soon. But given good bilingual notes and synopsis from Santiago Gorostiza, the Naxos certainly adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. El caserío is amongst the most musically self-sufficient of zarzuelas, and there’s no doubting that its spirit moves us here, sometimes to tears. The orchestral dances are joyously dispatched, the finales come across with proper emotional power. Taking care to emulate Bunyan’s Mr Facing-Both-Ways, let’s look forward by celebrating the new recording’s special achievements. After all, it is the first truly complete version of Guridi’s zarzuela masterpiece, and the first complete zarzuela from Naxos – a Double First, passed with Honours.
© Christopher Webber 2006