Mis dos mujeres
Cast: "Cupido" Blas - Juan Manuel
Cifuentes; La Condesa - Francesca Calero; Don Diego - Luis Álvarez;
Inés - Ruth Delaria; Don Gaspar - Miguel Solá; El Notario - David
Gómez Montiel; Don Félix - Alejandro Roig; Madre Angustias -
Elisenda Rivas; El Regidor - Carlos Belicias; Júpiter - Voz Grabada
In his recent zarzuela.net interview Francisco Matilla spoke of the strength of zarzuela's back catalogue, and the limited use to which it has been put. His Ópera Cómica de Madrid's work in unearthing forgotten works and bringing them back to the stage - without national funding support - has made the company a beacon light on the arts scene since 1985. Their revival of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri's three-act zarzuela grande Mis dos mujeres ("My Two Wives") proves Matilla's point as to the quality of the lost treasure, and demonstrates that lack of money need be no bar to creativity.
The 18th century, aristocratic plot is simple. To keep his union with the Contesa de Segura secret, Don Diego goes through a bogus marriage to his innocent cousin, convent-educated Doña Inés - much to everyone's discomposure, not least Inés's faithful admirer Don Félix. Everything goes classically wrong before ending romantically right, and Luis Olona's elegant libretto offers his composer a balance of sentiment and comedy which was right up Barbieri's street. Mis dos mujeres (1855) was a staging post on the road between Jugar con fuego (1851) and the masterly Pan y toros (1864), but proves to be a fine zarzuela in its own right.
Barbieri's distinctive vein of comedy - more Donizetti than Rossini, but with its own citric, Spanish zest - emerges in many of the 15 numbers, notably two diamond-sharp choral gems for the Convent Girls in Act 3, wittily counterpointing pious surface with lusty depths. Yet his score also boasts plenty of effective lyricism for the two principal couples. Inés's pivotal Romanza at the climax of Act 2's confusion is specially effective in painting both her amorous anguish and innocence as to its cause, both flagged up by a long, sweet introduction with cello solo which is not without its own dusting of comedic spice. Indeed Barbieri's sure sense of theatre is plain at every point, in a work which delights by its deft mixture of serious flippancy. In this he marks out the territory which zarzueleros down to Pablo Sorozábal were to make their own, a ground leased out in our own time to Madrid filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar.
Matilla's beautifully prepared production pays the work the compliment of letting it stand on its own two feet. His invention of a renegade Cupid from Baroque Opera, to take the role of the comic servant Blas, is a stylised device to frame the action, as well as offering Matilla the chance to make a neat point about the relative under-estimation of La Zarzuela compared against her older sister La Ópera. Cupid's initial bafflement - he has to be helped to understand his role by a modern stage manager - is dissolved in gradual identification with the reality of the zarzuela world, a process marked by a "fall" from operatic recitative to the spoken word, though in the end "Love Reigns" as securely as at the opera itself. The device is only incidentally amusing, but dramatically telling.
Sets and lighting are simple, costuming rich but neutral, all of which serves to place the weight where it should be - on music, text and performance. And Matilla's cast do not let him down. Luis Álvarez is a tower of actor-singer strength in the central role of the unwilling pseudo-bigamist, and the other principals are well up to his standard. Despite some loose moments of ensemble, inevitable in live performance, Carlos Cuesta's musical preparation is on a level with Matilla's staging. Choral and orchestral work is uniformly good, with special praise due for Eduardo del Río's cello solo in Act 2.
This is tastefully superimposed on the stage action, in just about the only visual adornment to a functional DVD presentation which presents the stage action penny-plain. Sound quality is good. Extras include a rehearsal montage on location at Móstoles' Teatro del Bosque, cross-cut with interviews featuring Matilla and Ópera Cómica's producer, Fernando Poblete. The booklet has a full introduction and synopsis, plus an in-depth article on the music of Mis dos mujeres and its place in the composer's work by leading Barbieri scholar Emilio Casares Rodicio. Mis dos mujeres is very highly recommended to anyone who warms to the tiny 19th century repertoire hitherto available on disc, and wishes to sample one of its hidden treasures.
© Christopher Webber 2004