Fur Coat and No Knickers
As an enthusiast for Emilio Sagi’s work over the last decade or so I was completely stunned by his Valencia production of El rey que rabió, recorded in the new Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía during 2009. Stunned - but in the manner of a bullock just before slaughterhouse butchery. And ‘butchery’ is the word here. Sagi’s production manages to get just about everything wrong in his travesty of Carrión and Chapí’s subtle and varied Ruritanian tale of the King who goes amongst his commoners, and finds thereby both his true duty, and his Queen.
But ‘travesty’ is not quite the word, as one of the fundamental mistakes here is the casting of a squat, pugilistic tenor in the travesty soprano title part. Given that Sagi has no qualms about having both a small solo role and the chorus of Pages sung by dinner-jacketed women, it’s all the more unintelligible that he and musical director José Miguel Pérez Sierra didn’t cast the lead role correctly. Would we tolerate tenors as Cherubino, or as Octavian, or Bellini’s Romeo? Having a tenor King fouls up Chapí’s subtle ensemble writing, reduces the charm and unbalances the drama.
Though ‘drama’ is not quite the word either. Wholesale slashing of the spoken text, little interaction between actors, a clownish performance style which is all silly walks, silly gestures and endless shouting at the audience ... none of these promotes anything much like theatre, let alone drama. Add to that garish costumes, a hideously vulgar technicolor design based on mirrors and pin spots, and an air of desperation from singers grinning at the audience in the hope they’ll find it irresistibly funny (they don’t) and we have a recipe for a trainwreck, more Rey Ubú than Rey que rabió. Genial, pastoral fable this ain’t.
Don Emilio, what were you thinking of? Were you thinking of anything at all? Many of your tried and tested gambits are here, not least the brigade of white chairs which have done duty for Luisa Fernanda and La generala and are now audibly creaking. Your desire to brush away the cobwebs [c.f. your refreshing interview for zarzuela.net over a decade ago] is as admirable as ever. But this time you seem to have left your brain behind. El rey que rabió is not cabaret-operetta. It is entertaining (though not here). It is charming (though not here). But it is also about something (absolutely not here). And it deserves a lot more thought than your production displays.
Sagi has created one, beautiful moment. The serene Nocturno interlude in Act 2 is staged as a silent, moonlit paseo for chorus and principals. For all of three minutes nobody shouts, nobody runs, nobody grins at the audience. And Chapí’s charm works its magic. It’s well played too by the Valencia orchestra under Pérez Sierra, whose tempi are right throughout and who secures mostly tolerable unanimity for the ensembles and choruses in which this zarzuela is unusually rich. Given the full musical text and good singing (including from the miscast tenor monarch) the wasted opportunity is all the more pitiable. Thank goodness for Elena de la Merced’s velvet-cream Rosa, and for María José Suárez and Luis Varela as peasant support: they alone manage to bring any sense of reality to what they are doing. For this relief much thanks.
Perhaps the show’s garishness is emphasised by one of the tackiest DVD presentations I’ve seen for a long time. With mirrored floor, mirrored walls and all those pin spots it must have been a devil to video; but the over-exposed, fuzzy image is horrid to watch, the 4:3 picture format is antiquated, and the lack of extras or subtitles (even in Spanish) adds to the feeling of a cheapskate job, hastily done. And yet the booklet is lavishly illustrated with stills from the show, graphics galore, and a good essay taken from the late Luis Iberni’s indispensable book on the composer. The production is dedicated to Iberni’s memory. He was worth a better memorial. This one’s all fur coat and no knickers.
© Christopher Webber 2011
Cast: El Rey,
Pablo Martín Reyes; Rosa, Elena De La Merced; Jeremías,
Vicenç Esteve; El General, Manel Esteve; María, María
José Suárez; Juan, Luis Varela; El Gobernador, Luis Cansino; El
Intendente, David Rubiera; El Almirante, Jon Plazaola; El Capitán, Boro
Giner; El Alcalde, José Luis Gago; Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana (d.
Francesc Perales); Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; c. José Miguel
Pérez Sierra; d. Emilio Sagi