Fundación de la Zarzuela Española
It’s tempting to think that once you’ve seen one Zarzuela Gala you’ve seen them all. This one, from a live performance at Valladolid’s Teatro Calderón, arrives with better credentials than many. More sumptuously executed than most post-Tamayo efforts, it features substantially the same “creative team” as the enjoyable Madrileña bonita. The DVD is well produced, with rich sound and crisp video, substantial extras, solid authoring and good Spanish/English subtitling. The illustrated Spanish-only booklet is positively lavish. If the performers exhibit those glazed eyes and frozen smiles common to under-rehearsed troopers doing the best they can with hands-on-hips gestural choreography, DIY characterisation and showy frocks, they certainly get to perform some real rarities, the most powerful of which is Fernando Moraleda’s pasodoble on José Román Muñoz’s lament for the death of the bullfighter Granero.
Bullfighter? Yes. La Fiesta Nacional en La Zarzuela might be glossed as “Our National Sport in Zarzuela”, and all’s made clear in the by-line – El mundo de la tauromaquia en nuestro género lírico (the world of tauromachia in our lyric genre). Such is originator Julio Doncel López’s choice of rope upon which to hang his off-centre string of lyric pearls. Having attended Las Ventas myself earlier this week, marvelling as matadors “El Juli” and “El Cid” wove their tauromachial magic in that great cauldron of popular emotion, I thought this might be a fun idea. The conjunction of toreros and tenores involves scriptwriter Andrés Amorós in some contorted pases as he seeks to convince us of the importance of the corrida in the great zarzuelas: Pan y toros takes a tauromachial view, certainly, albeit a much more deeply ambiguous one than Amorós would have us believe. But if the scraping of barrels sounds, it’s distant enough. This is just a gala after all, and galas being by definition light exercises in genial nostalgia we should be prepared to swallow most anything.
So why did this one finally stick in my throat? It’s nostalgic in spades, but light geniality turns out to be at something of a premium. As the fiesta proceeds, the smiles turn to grimaces, the hands move from hips to clenched fists. We end up literally under siege. In common with many other theatrical pasodobles the stirring Marcha de Cádiz was formerly played at corridas, for sure; but the work itself celebrates the lifting of the French siege of the city in 1812, and its characters are much too busy manning the barricades to bother about bullfighting. Popularised at the end of the Cuban war in 1898 when national morale was at a low ebb, Chueca’s march has served as a potent rallying cry to nationalists ever since. Its political resonance as a final is crystal clear in today’s Spain, where neo-nationalism is weighing in hard against the current government’s plan to remove offices and powers from Madrid to bolster the autonomy of the regions. With its overt homage to London’s Les Mis, the Marcha as staged makes a defiant rather than celebratory conclusion to this Fiesta Nacional.
As an outsider – and this show certainly lets me know that I am an outsider, although the French come in for even worse treatment – I ended up feeling under siege myself, and may I hope be forgiven for brandishing a clenched fist in return. When I first discovered género lírico music, I was surprised to learn that for many of Spain’s younger generation “zarzuela” meant old-fashioned, reactionary and stuffy. Thanks to the imaginative recovery work of companies such as the Teatro de la Zarzuela and Ópera Cómica de Madrid, and the scholars of SGAE and ICCMU, that perception has been turned around. When I visit Madrid now I meet young men and women as enthusiastic about the past and present of this extraordinary genre as any Spaniards alive, passionate to use their talents to promote zarzuela’s future at home and abroad, rightly proud of their nation’s music but ready to laugh off the dog-in-a-manger surliness of the old regime.
Laughter indeed may be the best response to such gloomy posturing as we get from this Fiesta Nacional. But there’s another irritating tic embedded in the show’s by-line: nuestro género lírico, nuestra zarzuela… “our zarzuela”. Usually this innocent little idiom has a warm, friendly glow. How reassuring to find a nation which cares about its arts sufficiently to nurture and cherish and protect them. A bit of me wishes we could talk about “our Gilbert and Sullivan” or even “our Lionel Monckton”, as if we cared. But nuestra zarzuela can say something else as well. It can say, “this is ours, and ours alone”. It can say, “only we Spanish can understand, so don’t even bother to try”. It can even shout, as it repeatedly does in this show, “zarzuela like Spain belongs to us, so don’t monkey around with it”. A gala seems a curious vehicle for such an embattled message; but it comes over loud and clear, not least through María Jesús Valdés’s hatchet-faced delivery of Amorós’ script.
I hope I’m wrong; but given its off-the-record indignation about modern stagecraft, the retro-style content of its luxuriously produced magazines, and (to judge from zarzuela.net’s email in-tray) its unhelpful attitude to potential supporters outside Spain, the Fundación de la Zarzuela Española is behaving increasingly like a dinosaur with bad toothache. The organisation has impressive fiscal clout and corporate sophistication. Its theatre histories and illustrated tomes have been a joy. All the more reason it should establish precisely what it is about, before it loses the goodwill of younger zarzuela aficionados at home and abroad. If it genuinely wants to feed the future of “nuestro género lírico”, it might care to note that this particular bombón has left a sour taste in at least one hungry mouth.
© Christopher Webber, London, May 29 2006
Penella: El gato
montés (Intermedio); Barbieri: Pan y toros (Marcha de la
manolería, canción de Perulillo); Chueca: Agua, azucarillos y
aguardiente (Pasacalle); Álvarez/Bernaola: Pasodoble, Suspiros de
España;Ángel Rubio: ¡¡Eh, a la plaza!!
(Lección de toreo); Alonso: La Zapaterita (Caballo bayo);
Soutullo y Vert: El último romántico (Pasacalle de las
mantillas); Giménez: La boda de Luis Alonso (Intermedio);
Moraleda: Qué cuadro el de Velázquez, esquina a Goya - Muerte
de Granero; Penella: Curro Gallardo (Romanza); Padilla:
Cuplé - El relicario; Alonso: Las tocas (Despedida del
torero); Penella: El gato montés (Dúo - Torero quiero
ser); Chueca/Valverde: Cádiz (Marcha, final Acto 1)