Operetta in Spain
Spain has had a variable approach towards imported musical theatre works over the years. During the third quarter of the nineteenth century the texts of French opéras-comiques and operettas were sometimes seen simply as material for adaptation for native composers. Such was the case, for instance, with several works of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, such as Los diamantes de la corona (Madrid, Teatro del Circo, 15 September 1854), after Daniel Auber’s opéra-comique Les diamants de la couronne (Paris, 1841), Los dos ciegos (Madrid, Teatro del Circo, 25 October 1855), after Jacques Offenbach’s Les deux aveugles (Paris, 1855), and Robinson (Madrid, Teatro del Circo, 18 March 1870), after Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoé (Paris, 1867).
From the middle of the 1860s the original French operetta scores of Jacques Offenbach, Charles Lecocq and Edmond Audran were openly welcomed, as were later those of Viennese works by Franz von Suppè, Johann Strauss and Carl Millöcker. Then, around 1910, Spain – like other countries – found itself in the grip of the craze for Viennese operettas by the likes of Franz Lehár (Die lustige Witwe, Madrid, Teatro Price, 8 February 1909; Der Graf von Luxemburg, Madrid, Teatro Eslava, 19 October 1910), Leo Fall (Die Dollarprinzessin, Barcelona, Teatre Nou, 4 September 1909; Die geschiedene Frau, Barcelona, Teatre Gran Vía, 16 April 1910) and Oscar Straus (Ein Walzertraum, Madrid, Teatro de la Comedia, 1 April 1910; Der tapfere Soldat, Barcelona, Teatre Còmic, 19 January 1911).¹
Such was the popularity of these works that Spanish creators were compelled to respond more actively to public demand. Not only did they come up with native works in similar style, but these were often specifically styled “opereta”. A familiar example is Vicente Lleó’s “opereta bíblica” La corte de Faraón (Madrid, Teatro Eslava, 21 January 1910), adapted from the libretto of the French operetta Madame Putiphar (Paris, 1897) by Edmond Diet (1854-1924). Others were Pablo Luna’s Molinos de viento (Sevilla, Teatro Cervantes, 2 December 1910) and Los cadetes de la reina (Madrid, Teatro Price, January 1913). Not least, there was Amadeo Vives’s La generala (Madrid, Gran Teatro, 14 June 1912).
The Authors of La generala
At the time of its production, Amadeo Vives Roig had just turned forty. Born on 18 November 1871 in Collbató (Barcelona province) on the southern slopes of Montserrat, he died in Madrid on 2 December 1932. Together with the librettists Guillermo Perrín and Miguel de Palacios, he had already looked towards international operetta with the Parisian setting of Bohemios (Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 24 March 1904). With co-composer Gerónimo Giménez, he then followed up with El húsar de la guardia (Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 1 October 1904), set in France in Napoleonic times. However, where both these works merely cast a glance towards foreign operetta, La generala – despite its English setting – had its face stylistically fully turned towards Vienna.
The librettists of La generala were both Vives’s elders by some years. Guillermo Perrín y Vico was born in Málaga on 16 November 1857 and died in Madrid on 8 December 1923. Miguel de Palacios Brugueras came from an Asturian family; but sources differ as to whether he was born in Gijón on 18 January 1863,² in the Philippines on 18 May 1863,³ or even in Manila in 1858.° He died in the Sanatorio Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, Gijón, on 3 October 1920. For over thirty years Perrín and Palacios formed a highly successful theatrical writing partnership. Not for nothing were they known as “the Siamese twins of the género chico”.
Their joint success was based less on artistic ambition than on a sure feel for theatrical effect and popular taste. While the reputedly “serious and taciturn” Palacios concerned himself with dramatic structure, characterisations and development of action, the “inventive and light-hearted” Perrín – nephew of the celebrated actor Antonio Vico (1840-1902) – was responsible for the humour and the development of the dialogue. Their previous successes had included not only La corte de Faraón for Lleó but also El barbero de Sevilla (Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 5 February 1901) for Manuel Nieto and Gerónimo Giménez, and La Torre del Oro (Madrid, Teatro de Apolo, 29 April 1902) for Giménez alone. However, it was with Vives that they most consistently achieved enduring success – with the one-act Bohemios and El húsar de la guardia, and the full-length La generala.
British Settings in the Lyric Theatre
In choosing a British setting for La generala, Perrín and Palacios were treading ground unfamiliar for zarzuela, though usual enough for opera. English settings were commonly found in operatic works based on William Shakespeare (1564-1616) – for example Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (Milan, 1893). In the same way, many Scottish settings resulted from operatic adaptations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), as in Adrien Boieldieu’s La dame blanche (Paris, 1825). Other operas with English settings included Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha (Vienna, 1847). Spanish composers involved themselves with British sources most obviously in the collaboration of Isaac Albéniz with the English writer Francis Money-Coutts (1852-1923). This produced Henry Clifford (Barcelona, Gran Teatre del Liceu, 8 May 1895) and the posthumously staged Merlin after the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Within zarzuela, Liverpool had been the starting point for Barbieri’s Robinson, while Manuel Fernández Caballero’s Los sobrinos del capitán Grant (Madrid, Teatro del Príncipe Alfonso, 25 August 1877) – even if not actually set in Britain – retained the British characters of Jules Verne’s original novel. Later the English countryside would provide the setting for Jacinto Guerrero’s La montería (Zaragoza, Teatro Circo, 24 November 1922). Fully fledged British settings were, however, extremely rare not only in zarzuela but also in continental European operetta. The visual appeal of tartan had produced Scottish settings in Le Trône d’Écosse ( Paris, 1871) by Hervé (1825-92) and Miss Dudelsack ( Berlin, 1909) by Rudolf Nelson (1878-1960). However, before 1912 the only significant example of an English setting in a non-British operetta seems to have been by Hungarian composer Jenö Huszka (1875-1960). His Bob herceg (Budapest, 1901) was set in and around the royal palace in London and featured the amorous adventures of the heir to the British throne.
Vives, though, had a track record of interest in Britain and British sources. Even earlier than Albéniz, he used the legends of King Arthur in his ambitious four-act opera Artús (Barcelona, Teatre Novetats, 19 May 1897), based on Walter Scott’s poem The Bridal of Triermain (1813). After moving to Madrid in 1897 to concentrate on zarzuela, Vives was then involved in 1901 with adapting for the Spanish stage works of the British composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900).ª Later he also adapted the musical play The Quaker Girl (London, 1910) by Lionel Monckton (1861-1924) as Los quákeros (Barcelona, Teatre Novetats, 6 December 1913). In between, he and Giménez collaborated on the score of Los viajes de Gulliver (Madrid, Teatro Cómico, 21 February 1911), based on the 1726 novel by Irish satirical writer Jonathan Swift (1667-1745).
Britain was in any case a logical setting for La generala, since it had always been (and still is) regarded as a safe-haven for exiled continental European royalty. At the same time, the specific settings of Oxford and Cambridge are scarcely credible. Having Prince Pío enter after a game of tennis fits well enough; but Oxford and Cambridge were – and are – very much more associated with university colleges and students than with castles and Highland Regiments. The latter are more typical of Scotland, which would have been an altogether more logical setting. One might surmise that Oxford and Cambridge were only later substituted as locations more immediately evocative for a Spanish audience.
It should be added that the 42nd Highland Regiment, of which King Cirilo II was honorary Colonel, was a very real Scottish regiment. Indeed it was perhaps the most celebrated of all Scottish regiments. Its history included particularly distinguished service during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. The regiment featured prominently at the battle of La Coruña in 1809 and elsewhere during the Peninsula Wars, assisting the Spanish and Portuguese to oust the French. Later it served with distinction in the Crimean War of 1853-56, helped quell the Indian uprising against the British in 1857-58, and was active in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa in 1899-1902.
As for a story featuring the royal families of mythical Molavia and Espartanopia, Perrín and Palacios were following the fashion established by Viennese works such as Die lustige Witwe (‘The Merry Widow’) and Ein Walzertraum (‘A Waltz Dream’) for depicting imaginary central European kingdoms, with characters in colourful courtly and military costumes, and offering fun at the expense of stuffy court etiquette. Luna’s Los cadetes de la reina would follow the same tradition – a genre known in the English-speaking world as “Ruritanian operetta” after the kingdom of Ruritania in the novels of Anthony Hope (1863-1933). For Hope’s “Ruritania”, substitute in La generala “Molavia” or “Espartanopia”.
It is specifically in the libretto of Perrín and Palacios that the Viennese operetta influences are most readily to be found. Indeed the plot contains very clear parallels with The Merry Widow. Where Lehár’s work featured a nation fallen on hard times, the Vives likewise featured an impoverished dynasty. Where, in the Lehár operetta, redemption was sought by marrying off an embassy attaché, in the Vives it is done by marrying off the heir to the throne. Whereas complications arise in The Merry Widow from the appearance of a previous lover, in La generala they do so from the entry of a former heartthrob. Just as in The Merry Widow the Ambassador is spared discovering his wife in a compromising position by a switch of ladies in the summerhouse, so is the General spared in La generala by a switch in the ‘Petit Trianon’.
Derivative elements or not, the librettists were unfazed by moving up from their customary single-act works to full-length operetta. They built up a book full of cleverly worked situations and witty interplay, reaching humorous climaxes in the Act 1 cuarteto cómico and the Act 2 terceto cómico. Overall the book of La generala is stronger than those of many Viennese operettas, the musical score less extensive but vocally more demanding. The music itself bears little specific sign of Viennese influence. When Vives moves into waltz tempo in the Act 1 dúo for Berta and Pío and the Act 2 ‘Dúo Nocturno’ for Olga and Pío he does so with waltzes more French than Viennese – very much akin to those already heard eight years earlier in Bohemios. If there is any slight suggestion of Lehár in La generala, it is perhaps in the aforementioned cuarteto cómico and terceto cómico.
Vives was, after all, too talented a composer to need to imitate. Rather, he allowed the libretto of La generala to create the operetta atmosphere and contented himself with eschewing the overt Spanish rhythms that were later to distinguish his Maruxa (Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 28 May 1914), Doña Francisquita (Madrid, Teatro de Apolo, 17 October 1923) and La villana (Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela, 1 October 1927). Overall he produced a cosmopolitan score full of grace and verve, with the humorous situations and witty and tender lyrics inspiring from him well developed ensembles and romantically affecting solos and duets. His lyrical and harmonic flame burns at its brightest. The wonderfully developed Act 1 dúo for Berta and Pío represents one of the gems of the zarzuela repertory, and the Act 2 dúos for Pío with Olga are as highly contrasted as their dramatic significance requires. Throughout, Vives captures the fluctuating emotions, quoting with effect the Olympia Music Hall song from the Act 1 dúo that lies at the root of the work’s amorous vacillations.
The most obvious piece of British colour in the score comes in the Act 2 ‘Giga Militar’, a production number in which Vives evokes the sound of the pipes and drums of a Highland Regimental band. Elsewhere his orchestration contains typically magical pieces of invention – above all, perhaps, in the glitter of the ‘Canción de Arlequín’ and the delicacy of the ‘Dúo Nocturno’, but also in countless delicate instrumental decorations. Especially fortunate is the harpist, whose involvement here is as significant as in any of Vives’s scores.
The Original Staging
Madrid’s Gran Teatro, where La generala was first staged, stood in the Calle del Marqués de la Ensenada where the General Council of Judicial Power now has its headquarters. The first-night audience gave a triumphant reception to book, music, staging and performance alike. ABC declared that, “The whole score is sketched and developed with a poetic shading and tonality, as in a dream, and its orchestration has an expressive force of colour and is exquisitely worked.” Among the performers, prime praise went to leading lady Luisa Rodríguez, only recently arrived in Madrid after previous experience in Mexico. Commended for her well schooled and pleasant soprano, her acting, her dresses and – not least – her beauty, she was rewarded with encores for her Act 1 dúo, as well as for the Act 2 terceto cómico ‘¡Señora! ¡Señora!’. This last, which ABC said had “the spirit and mischief of a classic scherzo”, achieved particular effect, featuring as it did the celebrated comic Emilio Carreras (1858-1916). La Época described his King Cirillo II as “delicious, comic, but without exaggerations”.
This latter paper also praised Hilario Vera for his “gentle and unruffled” Tocateca, and Sofía Romero for her “pompous and formidable” Queen Eva. There was praise too for the young Asunción Aguilar, making her début as Princesa Olga. Her big Act 2 duet with Vicente García Romero [actually José García Romero, brother of Vicente, Ed. (2/2018)] as Príncipe Pío was also repeated. ABC declared that the tenor “illuminated with great security and splendour his well toned, melodic and pleasing voice”, and described the young ladies in supporting roles as “a bouquet of fresh roses”. La Época reckoned that even more numbers would have been encored “if fear that the performance would end at a very advanced hour had not put a damper on the enthusiasm”. Vives took a bow with each encored number, as well as at the final curtain with the librettists, leading artists, designers and musical director Tomás Barrera (1870-1938).
Neither of the young leading ladies who made such an impression on that first night of La generala was to remain long in the Spanish musical theatre. Asunción Aguilar, otherwise María Ros (c1895-1970), went on to sing opera in Italy and married Italian operatic tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979). Luisa Rodríguez more quickly retired from the stage on marrying the Basque writer Manuel Aranaz Castellanos (1875-1925). At least she seems to have preserved on record what La Época described as a “pleasant, though not very extended voice”, since she contributed to several early acoustic recordings conducted by Pascual Marquina (1873-1948) and Luis Foglietti (1877-1918). Though these are without either Asunción Aguilar or the deceased Emilio Carreras, they do feature the original tenor, García Romero, as well as Recober, the original Clodomiro, and Señoritas Vela and Perales, creators of the minor roles of Isabel and Natalia.
From the electric age, Odeón recorded a more extensive set of excerpts in Barcelona in 1931. These have now been transferred to CD. They show the focus shifting from the soprano to the tenor, being notable above all for the elegantly and expressively phrased singing of Emilio Vendrell (1893-1962). His partner, Matilde Rossy, is a small-voiced and slightly shrill generala, though she trips through the ‘Canción de Arlequín’ in admirably sprightly fashion.
Even with the arrival of LP, restrictions on side length meant that, with conductor Rafael Ferrer (1911-88) adopting leisurely tempi, the first LP recording lacked three whole numbers. Of these the ‘Canción escocesa’ was issued separately on a 45 rpm disc and was not reinstated when EMI eventually transferred the LP to CD. With or without that number, the uncomfortably shrill and squeaky singing of María Espinalt (1915-81) at that stage of her career is a deterrent to enjoyment of an otherwise generally sound performance.
The operetta received a more complete representation with the 1958 Columbia LP recording starring Pilar Lorengar (1928-96), though some cuts remain. Lorengar’s supremely agile and bright soprano is thrilling in the ‘Canción de Arlequin’ and ‘Canción escocesa’. Her distinctive vibrato can give concern, though, while Ginés Torrano (b1929) lacks the voice and technique to do full justice to the big duet. The supporting cast of Joaquín Portillo as Cirilo, Mary Carmen Ramírez (b1932) as Eva and Conchita Balparda as an attractively young-sounding Olga is an admirable one. Odón Alonso (b1925) directs in sprightly fashion.
Neither of these two LP versions is really a serious rival to the 1959 Zafiro version which – though now nearly 50 years old – is also the most recent. Only the Act 1 Finale is recorded more completely elsewhere (in the version under Odón Alonso), and the casting offers the creamy-toned Ana María Olaria (b1931) in the title role, Elsa del Campo as a charming young Princess, and – glory of glories – Alfredo Kraus (1927-99) as a supremely graceful and lyrical Príncipe. He sings ravishingly throughout, and conductor Enrique Estela (1894-1975) is sensitive to his every nuance.
Of excerpt recordings, the major interest lies in the 1965 version of the key Act 1 dúo, sung by Montserrat Caballé (b1933) and her husband Bernabé Martí (b1928). Where the Olaria/Kraus recording inevitably shows the tenor outshining the soprano, the Caballé/Martí restores the focus more appropriately to the title character. Caballé’s beautifully expressive singing, her husband’s sturdy support and superior sound quality make it a recording to savour.
from Original Staging
Back in the theatre, La generala was soon added to the repertory of the Teatro de la Zarzuela when it reopened in 1913 after its destruction by fire in 1909. It reappeared there from time to time during the following two decades, as well as at the Teatro de Apolo and other Madrid theatres. The work was then staged at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in 1947 after some years of neglect. As recently as 2003 two productions returned the piece to Spanish currency, one directed by Ignacio Aranaz in a production of Pamplona’s Teatro Gayarre (which then visited various theatrical venues) and the other by the Tricicle group (which first toured sundry theatres before remaining for a time on the bill of the Teatre Victòria in Barcelona).
As a work in the wider European operetta tradition La generala has also in recent years enjoyed exposure outside the Spanish-speaking world. In March 2002 it represented Spain in a season of international operettas at the Vienna Volksoper, where it was mounted as Die Generalin (sung in Spanish but with dialogue in German) in a production by Emilio Sagi. The following year that same staging visited the International Festival of Operetta in Triest – Italian capital of the genre – with an identical “diplomatic” mission. The current Teatro de la Zarzuela production continues along this same path, since after its Madrid presentation and its passage through Oviedo it will visit Paris as part of the lyric season of the Théâtre du Châtelet. It seems that La generala not only remains a classic of the zarzuela repertory but has internationally achieved the status of Spanish operetta of reference for the twenty-first century.
© Andrew Lamb / Teatro de la Zarzuela
¹ These details relate to the first
Spanish-language productions. In some cases there had been previous Spanish
productions in the original German or some other language.
9 February 2008