La Zarzuela +
From two Perspectives -
The interest of La Zarzuela + Pop is not so much content as concept. A slick and sexy sleeve design combines the suggestive image of high-heel stiletto and trainer familiar from the Teatro de la Zarzuela’s 2006-7 season, with bold, poster-colour filtered photos of the dear old composers. Inside we have photos of the pop stars, and – glory be! – complete lyrics of the songs. The album looks fabulous, and as Autor is an SGAE subsidised company let’s hope that the relatives of those composers and writers still in copyright will be enriched by the project.
Apart from the singers they’re the only ones who will be. Much of what’s on offer is neither good zarzuela, nor good pop. The prominence of Teatro de la Zarzuela and Ministerio de Cultura logos on said sleeve suggest that good money has been spent, presumably on the familiar, illusory ground that such initiatives somehow seduce the young into liking stuff they’d otherwise find boring and old-fashioned. In truth, no social group is quicker to sniff out stinking fish than los jovenes, or so adept at spotting condescension. If you want to interest anyone in anything in this life, you can only do it through enthusiasm and truthfulness. And the truth is that the group most likely enjoy this album are zarzuela fans looking for a laugh, which is exactly what they’ll get.
The artistic problems are (1) that too many of the songs come across like old stamps pasted onto new letters, and (2) that too few of the performers have the musical range or daring to deconstruct them imaginatively. Rafael Basurto has a likeable personality, but his cack-handed bumble through the tenor romanza from Doña Francisquita does little for the singer or the song. Vives’ original melody relies on subtle rhythmic and harmonic gear-shifts to make its effect. Clunked out to an unyielding beat and with only a handful of basic guitar figurations to support it, the effect is cringingly incompetent.
Similar impoverishment afflicts most tracks, especially the French-style cuplés or pasodoble-marchas – a full-frontal rock beat is merely inconvenienced by Don Hilarion’s naughty little ditty, though at least Jaime Urrutia and Andy Chango have the honesty to take the piss. Javier Álvarez may think he’s being cool or daring with the famous foreplay tease from La corte de Faraón, but few others will when the come-on is about as sexy as a bathful of dead newts. Almodóvarian transsexual this ain’t. The flamenco pop singers manage better with the romantic, essentially Spanishry of Sorozábal, Soutullo and Serrano, though even that icon of eternal youth Ana Belén can make only aural wallpaper of “Bella enamorada”. Often, the less done the better. Pasión Vega has the instinct not to faff about with Chueca’s Tango, treating it appropriately as a torchsong standard, but even this talented singer’s version ends up blandly uncommunicative. Compare her modish smoothness against Nati Mistral in the Frühbeck recording (BMG) and you’ll hear the razor-sharp hunger that’s gone missing. In the Vega version, two worlds miss each other by miles.
Lydia’ delivers a husky, vulnerable Marinela, prettified by guitarra portuguesa and sugar-coated space-opera reverb. This works in a conservative way, but we have to wait for track 12 of 13 to find something which actually adds to the landscape, or repays repeated hearings – Carmen París’ bold, jazz deconstruction of Bretón’s Jota. This singer has a command, a way of playing with fragments of tune and rhythm, which is both absorbing and focussed. There’s more than a touch of Louis Andriessen in her chordal/choral soprano backing, and at last we’re given music which sounds as if it flowed from something more than just the promise of a cheque in the post. Most of the rest should have been silence.
© Christopher Webber 2007
... and Javier A. Fernández
Zarzuela with spiked hair and leather jacket
The idea of recasting classic Spanish lyric music in the sound world of commercial pop is not new to Zarzuela + Pop. We’ve still got fresh in our memory the two volumes of Tatuaje, in which artists from pop and flamenco (such as Rosario and Marta Sánchez), gave us a new take on traditional Spanish coplas. But resuscitating a 20th century form such as the copla is not as complex as the business of dealing with zarzuela, a genre developed a few decades earlier with which youth has had little contact.
Though arguably this compilation collecting rearrangements of excerpts from the most famous zarzuelas is performing a task of popularization, we can still question that; since what’s most needed to familiarise zarzuela is to get the ear used to its sound, and the instrumentation and arrangements here have been made with the tools of pop, rock, jazz and modern rumba, and are not symphonic arrangements. What we can’t deny, is that some tracks recapture that streetwise air of roguery, in pieces such as the Menegilda’s Tango from La Gran Vía (done here by the temperamental Pasión Vega), or Don Hilarión’s coplas from La verbena de la Paloma as handled by those street-urchins Jaime Urrutia and Andy Chango.
With the exception of the Don Hilarión number, which translates the essence of the classic coplas into rockabilly, and the Couplets Babilónicos from La corte de Faraón in a dark and powerful reading from Javier Álvarez, the songs retain the style of the original and could even have been rehearsed perfectly well with piano and voice using original zarzuela scores. As proof listen to Martirio performing “No corté más que una rosa” from La del manojo de rosas, that Menegilda Tango – or “Bella enamorada” from El último romántico with the voice of Ana Belén, in a discreet musical adaptation of little creativity.
Despite all this, it is impossible not to be surprised by the vitality of compositions which, outstanding though they already are in their original versions, don’t lose a mite of their quality when viewed through the glass of 21st century popular language, and rather enrich the repertoire of today’s pop.
© Javier A. Fernández 2007
12 October 2007 / 6 November 2007