Given the importance of la gitana to Italian and French opera as prime representative of Spanish character, it is significant how rarely she takes centre stage in zarzuela. 19th century Madrid’s reaction to Azucena and Carmen was to work away from the type, to marginalise the gipsy, for example as the bar singer of La verbena de la Paloma, rather than yield to her fascination. That changed with Chapí’s La chavala (1898), notable in its sympathy for the lost soul of an urbanised gitana; and two years later Giménez capitalised on the theme with La tempranica, the great one-act zarzuela of gipsy life and a musical treasure. Romea’s libretto may be as full of holes as a leaky colander, but that hardly matters given the colour, depth and complexity of the 45' score.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’s classic account with Teresa Berganza is considerably cut. Enrique Navarro’s complete version starring Dolores Pérez is poorly played and recorded. Neither are in print. All the more relief, therefore, that this long-awaited DG production proves to be so very, very good. Víctor Pablo Pérez allows the music to unfold without hurry, giving us plenty of time to relish its many felicities of harmony, instrumentation and melodic grace without losing the sense of momentum. The supporting cast is good, with a reasonably boyish Grabié for the Tarantula Song and a sensitive, cultured Don Luis from the underrated Carlos Bergasa. The minor gypsies are if anything too cultured. The orchestra is excellent, DG’s sound natural and well balanced; and the Chorus – whether in aristocratic hunting or mountain gipsy garb – is both precise and dynamically subtle.
Which brings us to La tempranica herself. María Bayo’s artistic intelligence has always been acute, but here she dares to play an obvious ace. Her strategy is to project above all the young girl’s impetuosity, and it succeeds beautifully. One crucial moment is a revelation: “Sierras de Granada” has attracted many great singers, but how many have made sense of that transition from brooding gypsy fervour to the adolescent, Gounod-esque waltz of “Yo no sé…”? I’ve always felt it to be a rather clunky transition, evidence of Giménez’s tenancy of a half-way house between the national modernism of Falla and 19th century popular opera. Here, supported by her conductor’s self-effacing tenderness, Bayo’s alternation of sensual woman and innocent girl brings tears to the eyes, and makes a musical point that has eluded her predecessors. The duet with Bergasa provides moments of equal poignancy. The role stretches Bayo’s light, lyric soprano to its limits, but never beyond them, and her María is an altogether unforgettable portrait.
Little needs to be said about the Chueca coupling, which is at a much lower voltage, with some bizarre casting in the Quartet (Asia sounds older than her mother, Serafín anything but the requisite tenor cómico) and precious little sense of fun. It omits Chueca’s little orchestral finale with its witty allusions to the ratas music of La Gran Vía, so can’t even claim completeness. Bayo is a light and witty Pepa, and María Rodriguez her admirable foil in the Panaderos duet. Otherwise, in a well-stocked market only good choral singing and clean projection of Chueca (or whoever’s) scoring commend this unsuitable coupling.
No matter. La tempranica is the real thing, and this recording the benchmark version for our time. The booklet is beautifully produced, with an informative essay by Concha Gómez Marco, and complete sung texts. Susannah Howe’s translations of both excel even by her usual high standards, and she adds valuable notes to help English readers grasp some of the finer points of Romea’s Spanish.
Given all this loving care – not to mention the size of Bayo’s fan base, and the obvious appeal of the work to an international audience – it is all the more bizarre that DG have deemed the CD to be of “local interest only”, and have no plans to distribute it outside Spain. In the global village, such old-fashioned, parochial marketing from one of the so-called “majors” is inexplicable, and inexcusable. Do DG not realise that zarzuela broke out of its Iberian time warp a good while ago? Their failure to make this CD available internationally is sad, bad and mad.
© Christopher Webber 2009
Addendum: I should have made it clear that the DG recording does not include the spoken text of the very brief melodrama (“¡María! ... ¡Qué!”) between the heroine and her brother, in the centre of the Tanguillo chorus which concludes the gipsy scene, though the musical accompaniment is played. As Andrew Lamb has kindly reminded me, only the Navarro version includes that. None of the recordings includes Grabié's tiny, unaccompanied song (No.4 bis) which concludes the opening scene in the music manuscript, but is not found in other sources.
28 April 2009