Juan de Orduña's series of seven television zarzuela films for RTVE, dating from the late 1960's, may not scale the heights of cinematic sophistication, but there is something heroic about them which continues to command respect. Drama may be subservient to peluquería, garish Eastmancolor emphasises costumes rather than casting, vocal dubbing is often crude, and yet there is a whole-hearted, affectionate charm about these swiftly-made films which is true to the glorious originals.
Some visual stimulants aside - the Basque landscapes of El caserío, the chocolate-box Parisian snowscapes of Bohemios - musical quality is the primary draw. Orduña assembled stellar vocal forces, led by the likes of Luis Sagi-Vela, Vicente Sardinero, Josefina Cubeiro, Carlo Del Monte and Dolores Pérez; and given the iron-and-fire grip of Federico Moreno Torroba at the helm, the results - crude orchestral playing and recording notwithstanding - are passionately involving. Maruxa, El caserio and Las golondrinas are available on EMI CD in somewhat subtler sound, and despite cuts they remain top recommendations for these works.
As it happens this trio are amongst the pick cinematically, too. Las golondrinas is outstanding, not least for José Moreno's tortured study of the obsessed actor Puck (well-matched by Vicente Sardinero's saturnine baritone) but also for atmospheric design and focussed intensity as the two women in his life (Dianik Zurakowska/Lina Huarte and María Silva/Dolores Pérez) battle for possession of his body and soul. Intriguingly, dramaturge Jesús María Arozamena (who shared the series with Manuel Tamayo) went back to Usandizaga's original zarzuela version, with spoken dialogue and without the posthumous vocal padding provided by the composer's brother. The result is more intense, tighter and - paradoxically - more theatrical than the opera version.
Both this and La canción del olvido - notable for María Cuadra/Josefina Cubeiro's bewitching Rosina and José Sacristan's deadpan Toribio - feature substantial additions, maybe by Torroba himself. Las Golondrinas gains some effective light relief as gay actor Juanito (Antonio Durán) is pursued on and offstage by the sexually predatory coro de tiples. La canción del olvido has a new song - appropriately, yet another serenade - for the courtesan Flora (sung by Dolores Pérez), as well as a saltarello dance based on one of Serrano's themes. These are well worth hearing, and unique to the film versions.
The DVD transfers offer colour consistency over and above the variable commercial videotapes. The sound has been remastered and a 5.1 surround option made available, though there's little audible improvement in clarity over the video versions. Some (La canción del olvido) are in mono, others (Las golondrinas) in something like stereo. All are coarse by modern standards; but when we can hear Sagi-Vela as Santi in El caserío (notably well-acted by Armando Clavo), or duetting with Isabel Rivas's Mari-Pepa in La revoltosa and Josefina Cubiero's Rosa in Maruxa, who cares? Carlo Del Monte in El huésped del Sevillano, and the entire vocal cast of Las golondrinas, perform at the same, elevated level.
The screenplays omit little of substance, and the inevitable reordering and compressing of musical material is tastefully managed by Torroba. Even at their creakiest, as with the cardboard 17th century sets for El huésped del sevillano, these films are never less than entertaining, and faithful to the spirit of the seven great zarzuelas on which they are based. At 70 Euros the set (rather more if purchased individually) they represent a worthwhile, long term investment.
© Christopher Webber, 2004