It’s a curious coincidence that Pablo Sorozábal’s first and last stage children were both recorded complete before their premieres. What’s more, both starred arguably the best Spanish soprano and baritone of their respective eras. There, however, coincidence ends. The 78rpm discs of Katiuska were ready to be snapped up at a hefty price, by first night theatregoers eager to sample the sensation of the 1931 zarzuela season. The CD set of his tragic opera Juan José, recorded during rehearsals in Donostia-San Sebastián earlier this year, appears after a wait of over 40 years between the work’s completion in 1968 and its concert premiere.
That is 40 years too long. Anyone who remains in any doubt as to Sorozábal’s distinctive place in 20th century musical drama should hear this set. My feeling at the Madrid premiere [reviewed here] was that Juan José was “that pearl beyond price – a distinctive, theatrically viable full-length Spanish opera.” Closer acquaintance through this splendid CD set has deepened my respect for the opera’s musical worth, and confirmed my feeling that its strengths will only be truly recognised once it is fully staged. The booklet’s provision of a Spanish libretto (with Basque translation) helps hugely, and though the recording quality is cavernous, it does not manage to cloud Sorozábal’s nicely balanced orchestral-vocal tapestry.
His score’s conversational style and stop-go momentum rising occasionally to lyric ardour will be familiar to lovers of Adiós a la Bohemia, the 1933 ópera chica which the composer described as “a preparation” for work on Juan José, José Dicenta’s grittily tragic drama of poor, starving workers and his Wozzeck Madrileño. Over three acts such piecemeal structuring could have caused problems, but leitmotifs associated with each of the major characters as well as Spanish dance forms and rhythms including chotis, mazurca and habanera help bind the drama together. Sorozábal’s feeling for theatrical pace is unerringly precise, his ability to conjure up variations of mood always arresting, often surprising.
This is not a “numbers” opera. The melos blossoms organically out of the conversational loam, then dies back into it. If Sorozábal’s melodic gift was more short-winded by 1964 than it had been in the 1930’s and 40’s, he still conjures up phrases which haunt the memory: Juan José’s heartbroken response on learning, from a letter written to him in prison, that his beloved Rosa has shacked up with the boss, is one such flowering; Rosa’s subsequent delight (just before her brutal murder) at owning pretty things and eating fine food creates another. Lyric momentum grows as the pace quickens. The first act is the most stop-go; the second, set in the freezing cold tenement where most of the major characters live, is seamless and heart-rending; the third is most varied and daring.
Like Berg, Sorozábal uses orchestral preludes and interludes to paint and comment on the stage pictures. The murder itself, rather as in Wozzeck, is brutal, swift and musically ugly. Unlike Berg, Sorozábal chooses pretty much to end at the catastrophe rather than following his hero into the hell of guilt which ensues. Juan José ends with the anti-hero standing stunned over Rosa’s corpse, a solid minor cadence counterpointed by the distant sound of a barracks trumpeter announcing the dawn. The effect is poignant and ironic.
With the exception of a rather weak bass as the hero’s friend Andrés (another odd coincidence: Wozzeck’s sole friend has the same name. Did Dicenta know Büchner’s play?) the cast could hardly be bettered. The title role suits Manuel Lanza’s burnished baritone well, though he has a tendency to sing under the note at mezzo-forte; his Act 2 dúo with Ana María Sánchez’s stentorian yet subtle Rosa is stirring indeed, and of full operatic weight. Olatz Saitúa (Toñuela) has a much lighter lyric soprano which contrasts well with the heavier voice of the heroine, Maite Arruabarrena’s contralto is as impressive an Isidra on disc as in concert – the composer’s characterisation of this fin-de-siecle Celestina by a snake-like martial motif, sinewy yet forceful, is one of his most brilliant touches. Simón Orfila makes a virile impression as the prisoner Cano; whilst José Luis Sola as the charming bad boss Paco gets many of the score’s lyric sweetmeats, and makes the most of them.
I’m as impressed on disc by the unfailingly expert playing of Orquesta Sinfónica de Musikene, the Basque student orchestra, as I was in the concert hall. The brass are specially noteworthy, but the strings provide perhaps the most moving moment of the whole score – the nobly tragic contrapuntal theme first heard in the Preludio to Act 2, which the composer’s grandson tells me was based on an unpublished setting of a Basque poem about death. José Luis Estelles judges the switchback tempi perfectly throughout, and though in the Madrid live performance momentum was developed earlier and stronger, this is still mightily assured for the first outing of a score which must present many problems of balance and cohesion.
There will be some who find this opera’s fractured, late romantic idiom impossibly “old fashioned” for 1968, let alone 2009. There will be many others who prefer its composer’s sweeter, early zarzuelas to the vinegar-and-gripe-water harmonic palette he uses to paint the grind of Madrid’s 19th century poverty. But I’ll say it again: in Juan José Spanish music has finally turned up a full-length opera which is memorable, distinctive and above all theatrically viable. It will be a national shame if Sorozábal’s last theatrical offspring fails to get a stage airing in the near future. And this excellent recording will mightily aid that cause.
© Christopher Webber 2009
7 December 2009