Zarzuela as well as football can be a game of two halves. Act 1 of this final production of the Teatro de la Zarzuela's season was no more than gently enjoyable - well sung and acted by a fine cast, but lacking in focus and momentum. Angular, Mondrian-like monumental settings teetered tentatively from time to time, failing to create a convincing sense of location, or to add atmosphere to the rocky mesa in the rear. Staging of the choral scenes so crucial to this well-crafted rural melodrama seemed perfunctory, and even the lighting was oddly hit and miss. Apart from Manuel Lanza's majestic delivery of 'that' romanza made so famous by Domingo, "Ya mis horas felices", the temperature rarely rose.
The difference after the interval was startling. Jaime Martorell's production took wing, with effective use of the block settings to create spaces, an imaginative fantasy sequence for Tío Sabino's scene with the mozas, and a gathering sense of theatrical power. Manuel Lanza is a young baritone of international calibre, familiar to zarzueleros worldwide for his bright-eyed reading of the title role in the Auvidis El barberillo de Lavapiés and a brooding Melchor in the Decca La Dolores. In the theatre, his good looks and quietly effective acting make him a charismatic German of star quality. Matched with Argentinian Cecilia Diaz's deeply felt, highly personal Aurora, the crucial husband-and-wife duet reached a memorable level of dark, passionate intensity. Then on came Rafa Castejón as the indolent Damián, for some slick comedy business with a chair - superb, and a perfect example of the stylistic mix, the contrasted light and shade unique to zarzuela. This was truly what it's all about!
Next, a whiff of controversy. Rumblings in the audience began during the all-too familiar introduction to an apparently interpolated tenor romanza, to be capped by cries of "El ultimo romántico!" and extended grumblings throughout the warm applause at its conclusion. What we thought we were hearing was the showstopper "Bella enamorada" with a rewritten text about Segovia, but close inspection of the printed libretto revealed the truth - that the piece was written for La del soto del Parral but dropped to tighten the action before the premiere. Only later was it tricked out with a new text and incorporated into the composers' last full-scale piece, El ultimo romántico. Here, in its intended original place, it worked beautifully, with the clarion-clear tenor of José Manuel Montero (Miguel) fully justifying its reinstatement. The rest of the cast were on an equally high level. Enrique Ruiz de Portal may be too young for Tío Sabino, but his emotional understatement was touching; Amelia Font was a warmly communicative Catalina; Rafael Castejón's timing and finesse were a treat as the gossipy old poet, whilst his son Rafa's Damián was the all-round performance of the evening - alert, physically funny and spare, with never a gesture or a word overplayed.
Pedro Moreno's monumental settings worked well - eventually - his Dali-esque sandstone and blue skies a bold leap away from the realistic Segovian landscape imagined by the writers. His costumes, Mondrian patterned over a firmly traditional base, were beautiful and striking. The dance elements - largely saved for the final scene - were neatly finessed, and Aurora's powerful "En la cumbre nace al agua" with full choral support was certainly the culminating glory it needs to be. Here, as throughout, the conducting of José Fabra (deputising for Miguel Roa) was reliably well-pointed. The choral singing, and the playing of the Orquesta de la comunidad de Madrid, were of exemplary high standard. On this showing, Emilio Sagi leaves the Teatro de la Zarzuela in great shape, both musically and theatrically.
© Christopher Webber 2000