Zarzuela!

ZARZUELA ON CD
the current scene

The recorded legacy of Zarzuela is rich and full. All the great Spanish singers - from Supervia, through de los Angeles, Kraus, Berganza, Lorengar, Caballé, Domingo, Carreras down to María Bayo in our own time - have recorded zarzuela songs, and many complete works as well.

There are two main sources for complete (or reasonably complete) zarzuela recordings on CD. BMG is the holding repository for the invaluable Alhambra, Columbia and RCA catalogues from the 1950's, 1960's and early 1970's. Many of these performances, under conductors of the calibre of Frübeck de Burgos and Argenta, featured first rate singers with a sure grasp of style, and their vitality is undimmed by some scrappy orchestral playing and anaemic recording - although it has to be said that the CD transfers (whether those from the late 1980's or the early 2000's) are often technically unsatisfactory even when compared against the original LP's. Notes are sparse or non-existent, and there are no texts. Many of the performances contain cuts and more serious omissions.

An exception must be made for two series BMG devoted to classic recordings under Argenta, and a Guerrero Centenary Edition. These featured texts and notably better transfers, and it seemed that perhaps BMG were starting to treat their recorded legacy more seriously - until the shutters came down on further expansion of their classical arm worldwide. There are still some glaring omissions from their CD catalogue, such as the classic Berganza / Frühbeck de Burgos La Tempranica.

EMI-Hispavox meanwhile have reissued and remastered the equally fruitful catalogue from these two companies before their merger, late in that same "classic" period; though they also include some transfers from late 1940's performances. There are currently 26 issues available in their mid-price La Zarzuela series, issued in attractive style and with at least some notes and short synopses, though again without texts. Sorozábal and Torroba feature strongly, conducting many classics in addition to their own. The results are red-blooded, generally better recorded and much better transferred than the rival series on BMG, though some of the recordings are of highlights rather than complete musical texts. The roster of singers is equal to the opposition, too.

More recently in Spain, the initiative seems to be passing to some of the smaller independents. Blue Moon, Aria, Sonifolk and Fonotron (under their Homokord imprint) have brought out valuable reissues of pre-LP material, featuring original artists of the calibre of Emilio Vendrell, Cora Raga, Felisa Herrero and Marcos Redondo. The Blue Moon catalogue, though infuriatingly hit-and-miss in technical quality and presentation, now stretches to well over 50 issues. Aria are not exclusively geared to zarzuela issues, but their transfers are uniformly impressive, with thoughtful annotation in English as well as Spanish and Catalan.

Auvidis Valois made a short but impressive series in the early 1990's, inspired by Plácido Domingo, of brand new recordings featuring the great tenor, along with the veteran Alfredo Kraus, María Bayo and Juan Pons amongst other leading voices. These cover some of the greatest zarzuelas in performances which rival and in some cases even surpass the "classic" competition - not to mention the advantage of highly effective modern sound. Most but not all of these have been re-released on the Naïve label, which took over Auvidis round about the millenium.

The appearance of a splendid new digital coupling of La revoltosa and La Gran Vía on RTVE's own Música label in 2002 was a welcome sign, despite the somnolence of the "majors" - though as Domingo continues to feature in most new recording plans, it is an open question how far interest is down to his personal crusading zeal in this Indian Summer of his recording career. He also features in Deutsche Gramophon's (now stalled) Spanish stage works initiative, which between 2004 and 2007 produced good new recordings of some of the zarzuela classics not covered in the Auvidis/Naïve series.

The move away from studio recordings towards live CD/DVD issues has affected zarzuela just as much as opera. The ArtHaus Luisa Fernanda showcased Emilio Sagi's "black and white" production as nicely as it did Domingo's performance (in the baritone role of Vidal) but most other DVD issues have done zarzuela alarmingly poor service - an exception being those featuring productions from Ópera Cómica de Madrid. Contractual difficulties have blocked the appearance of Teatro de la Zarzuela's recent productions in this medium, and it is to be hoped that once these are sorted out, the way is clear for some excellent work to be made available to a worldwide public.

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