This page is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated May 17th 2010
If Vicente Lleó I Balbastre, born in Valencia on 19th November 1870, is nowadays remembered almost exclusively as the composer of La corte de Faraón, that should not blind us to the extent of his popularity during his lifetime. His earliest music experience was as a boy chorister in the Royal College of Corpus Christi in the city, where he learnt the rudiments of theory from Juan Bautista Plasencia and Lamberto Alonso. By the age of thirteen he had already composed an effective Dixit Dominus for the College services, and at seventeen he wrote his first stage work, De Valencia al Grao, by which time he was studying at the local Conservatoire under Salvador Ginés.
By the time he left Valencia for Barcelona to pursue his conducting career in 1894, he had already written a considerable number of stage works, as well as founding an organisation devoted to performing rights. Two years later came the inevitable move to Madrid, where he combined composition and conducting with editing his political magazine La Noche - which lost any money he managed to make by his entrepreneurial activities at the Teatro Eslava. The failure of the magazine forced him to concentrate on practical music making at the Eslava after the turn of the century, together with his partner, the popular actress Juanita Manso.
Producing Zarzuelas and revue music by the yard, he had considerable success writing in collaboration with Rafael Calleja (El mozo crúo), as well as Caballero (El pícaro mundo) and Vives (Episodios nacionales). In 1910 came his great and enduring triumph at the Eslava, La corte de Faraón, a recasting of the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife to a wittily outrageous libretto by Perrín and Palacios. The scandalous history of this work - including a lengthy ban under General Franco - contributed to its huge and enduring popularity. Several of Lleó's succeeding zarzuelas enjoyed initial success, but nowadays Los tres maridos burlados and the Japanese-inspired La taza de té; Apaga y vámonos and La capa encantada are completely forgotten - whilst the once-triumphant El método Gorritz (Most successful new work at the Teatro Apolo during 1908-9) is only a name.
Of his other works, only El maestro Campanone survives in performance. This is not original music, but an adaptation of an Italian opera, La prova d'un'opera seria, by Guiseppe Mazza (1845). In fact Lleó adapted, not the original, but a pre-existent 1850's Spanish version of Mazza's work, Campanone [see Andrew Lamb's article] condensing this material for the género chico style - there are just ten numbers - without destroying Mazza's Rossiniesque charm. The failure of the Teatro Eslava in 1918 led to Lleó's departure for Latin America, and he only returned to Madrid shortly before his death on 28th September 1922.
His last zarzuela ¡Ave César! was first performed three months later in homage to one of the Capital's most popular and familiar musicians. Nobody would claim that Lleó was a great composer, and of his own stage works only one has stood the test of time. Like El maestro Campanone, La corte de Faraón demonstrates his gift for pastiche, though in a far more subtle way, never directly quoting from either Aida or La Belle Heléne, its two most obvious models. Its expansive, fresh tunefulness and verbal alertness are a living testament to Lleó's true theatrical talents.
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