La bruja (Ruperto Chapí/Miguel Ramos Carrión and Vital Aza). Nancy Fabiola Herrera (The Witch / Blanca de Acevedo), José Bros (Leonardo), Susana Cordón (Rosalía), Julio Morales (Tomillo), Marta Moreno (Magdalena), Javier Roldán (The Priest), Fernando Latorre (The Inquisitor), Teatro de la Maestranza Chorus, Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, c. Miguel Roa.
Deutsche Grammophon 0044007628096 (two CDs) [108:47]
What’s in a name? As Professor Emilio Casares pointed out to me at a 2009 conference commemorating the centenary of Ruperto Chapí’s death, if this composer had called his three-act zarzuelas opéras comiques – which is essentially what they are – his own name would doubtless be much better known abroad. His three-act zarzuelas such as La tempestad, El milagro de la Virgen and La bruja follow the essential lines of La muette de Portici, La dame blanche and other internationally-famed warhorses of the French repertoire, and they certainly stand up to as much critical scrutiny. The very word ‘zarzuela’ still seems to put operatic managements off, and how unjust to Chapí and his fellow countrymen this is!
Clambering down from my soapbox … La bruja was one of Chapí’s early successes. Its brew of serious, supernatural drama and rustic humour – typical of the Spanish Golden Age commedia of Lope de Vega, to which Miguel Ramos Carrión’s libretto pays homenaje – is reflected by Chapí’s grab-bag of a score, which yokes Auber’s wit to Weber’s dreamy romanticism, spiriting Gounod in along the way – not to mention popular Spanish song and dance, rondalla band and all. There’s even a brace of astonishingly advanced passages where you’d swear you were hearing mature Manuel de Falla. Chapí’s technical grip and keen sense of theatre hold things together. Add in some great tunes, and we have one of the cornerstones of Spain’s operatic repertoire.
The score was written to showcase Madrid’s favourite tenor Eduardo Bergés, so the pivotal part is the young soldier tasked with freeing the lovely Blanca from an enchantment which has deformed her to an ugly old crone. Leonardo’s music strikes deep, not least his farewell to his Navarra homeland “Adiós, risueños campos”, one of those breathtaking foretastes of de Falla which makes the neck hairs rise in short order. The singer on the much-loved 1972 Alhambra LP set (later transferred to CD by BMG) was Alfredo Kraus in one of his signature roles, but José Bros rises equally well to Leonardo’s bel canto challenges. If he lacks Kraus’s imperious ring above the stave, there’s human warmth to compensate, and he’s unfailingly enchanting to listen to. His last-act Brindis (No.15) is especially good.
As the Witch herself Nancy Fabiola Herrera also faces an onerous task in trying to break the 1972 spell cast by Teresa Berganza. Yet her impeccably produced dark-honey tone gives great pleasure too, and in the crucial series of duets she and Bros play off one another more sensitively than their stellar rivals. With the exception of an ovine Inquisitor the new supporting cast matches the old. Susana Cordón’s Romance Morisco (No.1-C) is another of those avatars of de Falla, a great highlight of the score, and she sings and acts the number deftly. I especially liked Julio Morales as Tomillo. He is well-contrasted with Bros, and sings cleanly and clearly without guying the peasant humour. Miguel Roa’s direction is responsive, and the orchestral playing often thrilling – not least the braying horns in the famous Jota-finale of Act 1 (No.8-C). It’s a pleasure to hear so much more of Chapí’s sorcerous instrumentation than in Alhambra/BMG’s cavernously pallid 1972 sound.
So a winning Witch. But not alas unhexed. The stage director Luis Olmos chose to cut the lusty Rataplan chorus (No.19) which adds body to the rather threadbare action of Act 3, but there was no excuse for not rehearsing and adding it in to the CD issue. Its text is misleadingly included in the booklet (along with much else which is not sung) and its name and number are included in the track listings, so perhaps that was the intention. The omission is very disappointing. Dialogue and some of the less significant melodramas are out too, though the DG still has twenty minutes or so music absent from its Alhambra/BMG rival, which also unfortunately omits the Rataplan. A chance to record a great zarzuela grande in its entirety has been pointlessly missed.
The recording was apparently spliced together from two live nights at Seville’s Teatro de la Maestranza, but the lack of audience and/or stage noise in the first two acts is evidence that other takes were used, and digitally altered cadences cut off any applause there might have been for individual numbers. This is fine, but becomes ludicrous on the very last chord of the zarzuela, when a rising tide of applause suddenly vanishes supernaturally into thin air, leaving only the orchestral echo. And alone of DG’s recent zarzuela series this benchmark set lacks English translations and notes. The same feeble Spain-only marketing strategy thoroughly irritated many would-be purchasers (and at least one member of the cast!) of their excellent Tempranica set a couple of years ago, but this time they have carried their insularity a step further. It’s a depressing blot on an otherwise highly commendable issue. Aren’t DG interested in selling this set?
© Christopher Webber 2011
05 September 2011