Dedicated to touring, Antonio Amengual's Compañia Lírica Española presented Black, el payaso at the start of their annual four-week season in Madrid's Centro Cultural de la Villa. Compañia Lírica cannot of course command the financial resources of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, but nevertheless Amengual presented a cogent, decent attempt at a strange zarzuela, rarely encountered in the theatre at least partly because of its strenuous production demands. Perhaps the allegorical message of Black, el payaso is too deeply embedded under its disconcertingly flippant surface, but it remains a fascinating work.
The stylistic mix of Sorozábal's music is dizzying, from Weill-like astringency through warm verismo romance, to Ruritanian klesmer, Broadway jazz and Busby Berkeley parody. Yet somehow, the score is uniquely his own, and most of it is intensely memorable. The first scene in particular, an avant-garde music hall act in a Paris theatre, is as haunting a piece as Sorozábal ever wrote. It was well staged by Amengual, spare yet sequined, and the idea of having Princesa Sophia's party in the auditorium with us added to its disconcerting fascination. Camp, balletic scene changes and simple settings caught the spirit of the piece well, and the company's well-drilled choral and dance forces didn't sell it short.
Some of the principal performances were less effective. In the title role, Rafael Coloma's handsome fugure was not supported by musical charm. His acting was more than adequate, but vocally he was thin and often out of tune. Carmen Iglesias looked good as Sofía, but her singing was too acidulated to give much more pleasure. In a rare lapse on the staging side, their duets together were theatrically under-prepared - the Act 2 finale, in particular, went for little. Dupont, True King disguised as French pianist, was in the much more solid hands and voice of tenor Antonio Adame, rightly given an ovation for his stirring Act 3 song. Luisa Torres and David Sentinella worked hard in comedy support, though she lacked the vocal guns to turn the marche militaire Act 2 Quartet into the showstopper it ought to be. Rafael de los Rios and Marta Moreno did their best with two supporting courtiers, and young bass Hugo García showed vocal promise as White. In the cameo role of the old Royal forester, Zinenco, José Ramón Henche gave him and most of the rest a lesson in focussed, effective stagecraft.
Conductor Pascual Ortega's pacing of this difficult score was adept, though his orchestral forces would have benefited from a few extra bodies in the string section - it is all too easy to short-change Sorozábal's piquant scoring, and that was what happened here on occasion. Altogether, though, this was a most enjoyable performance of a problematic work which clearly does not warrant neglect. Amengual's company cannot be faulted for enthusiasm, intelligence or commitment, and we should be grateful to them for giving us the chance to encounter a flawed but deeply absorbing work at first hand.
© Christopher Webber 2000