There were three performances of Bretón's masterpiece at the Edinburgh International Theatre, in the King's Theatre on August 17, 18 and 19, 1997. The cast included Francesca Masclans (Susana), Marco Moncloa (Julian), Amelia Font (Seña Rita), Carles Canut (Don Hilarion), Rosa Galindo (Casta), Patricia Sevilla (flamenco singer), Josep Mota (Don Sebastián) and MaCinta Compta (Tia Antonia). The director was Calixto Bieito, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Miguel Ortega.
The neatly played overture gave us too comfortable an impression of what we were in for. On a sultry, sweaty Edinburgh night, this was a show to match, a production which exposed (in every sense) the dark underbelly of La Verbena de la Paloma. Heat and dust - not to say grime - were pervasive. Poverty, drink, sex and drugs penetrated every aspect of Calixto Bieito's brown-toned and brutally upfront production.
The piece is big enough to take it. Of all the well-known zarzuela scores, this is perhaps the one which contains the most original and startling music: a provocative flamenco singer in the café (here later seen prostituting herself to a predatory Don Sebastián); drunken Guards, amusingly indolent until roused to outrageous brutality by a teasing crowd; a cocaine-sniffing, bullet-headed and malevolent old chemist Don Hilarion; a filthy, crotch-scratching, chain-smoking Aunt Antonia - all these are fully justified by close attention to the score, and to the detail of Ricardo de la Vega's life-in-the-raw text. The overheated atmosphere regularly spills over into macho violence. The humour is black, the characters all at the end of their tether. When hero Julian finally tracks down his Susana and the famous Habanera strikes up, we're almost ready for a dance of death. No Exotic Local Colour or gleaming smiles here.
If the gains outweighed the loses in this approach, the execution of the production didn't live up to the atmosphere. The chorus, a well-chosen collection of individual characters rather than a concerted mass, were well-handled; but there was too often no sense of place - when was this the street? a café? a dance-hall? - characters looked stranded on stage rather than purposeful, dialogue was sometimes laboured. In a word, it was under-rehearsed.
This is no reflection on Miguel Ortega's well-paced control of the score, and the SCO's flamboyant playing of it. No reflection, either, on an exceptionally strong Spanish cast, quietly dominated by Carles Canut's immaculately underplayed, chillingly confident Don Hilarion. Francesca Masclans' Susana was vocally undersized, but her untouchable dignity in the face of a likely swift descent into prostitution, effectively counterpointed by Rosa Galindo's cheerfully pragmatism as sister Casta, had its point. Marco Moncloa was a sweat-drenched, sulky and intense Julian; Amelia Font explored every subtextual nuance of Rita's feeling for the young printer; Patricia Sevilla exhuded fragile, young availability as the rough-trade flamenco singer. MaCinta Compta's descent from lusty pimping to maudlin self-pity as Antonia is dragged off to jail pour encourager les autres was a joy. Pity we didn't get to see her dogs, though. We saw just about everything else.
Altogether, a highly enjoyable if to some tastes surprisingly strenuous evening. One oddity: strange to say, no designers for staging or lighting were credited in the programme - but then, neither was the fact that some of the programme notes were imported from this very web site! If La Verbena... was put together in something of a hurry, the spontanaity and oozing atmosphere compensated far more than adequately.
© Christopher Webber 1997