La Celestina (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) c. Jesus Alcantara
Joaquín Nin-Culmell:
La Celestina

Madrid, Teatro de la Zarzuela
(September 27, 2008)

Reviewed by   Enrique Mejías García

Here at last, after so many years, is the premiere of Nin-Culmell’s La Celestina; and the wait has been worth it. Teatro de la Zarzuela has taken the chance to begin their stage season by hosting this co-production of the Fundación Ana María Iriarte and the Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales, which most certainly does justice to the high value of a composer who – though still little known in Spain – is one of the most interesting musical figures from the “generation of 27”. La Celestina is, in many ways, the most fascinating title in his operatic catalogue. We could certainly classify it as amongst the most attractive Spanish-language operas written during the second half of the twentieth century.

But what does this “old lady” (as he called it) sound like? From the opening fanfare, wrapped in dissonant harmonies, certain gestures refer us to the Manuel de Falla of Master Peter’s Puppet Show and Harpsichord Concerto. This evocative neo-classical aesthetic, parallel to such contemporaries of Nin as Ernesto Halffter or Rodrigo, serves as the general framework to house a universe of bitter humour in the most characteristic scenes, for example Pármeno’s monologue “¡Puta vieja!” (“Old Bitch!”); or the decidedly heavy post-romantic, Puccinian vein of the solos and duologues for Calisto and Melibea – sviolinati[orchestral/vocal unison] effects included. The choral sections are especially attractive, using fragments from villancicos by Juan del Encina to define an “essential” Hispanicism, very concretely modal in structure and in rhythmic accent. A piece, in short, highly evocative in its kaleidoscopic musical range but one – sadly – in which theatricality is not evident at the same level.

La Celestina (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) c. Jesus Alcantara

Mezzo-soprano Ana María Iriarte (who was, incidentally, herself a long-time personal friend of Nin-Culmell) took on the artistic direction, selecting the singers from her Fundación to give life to characters from Fernando de Rojas’s play. As the old pimp herself we enjoyed the severe Alicia Berri, perhaps a little forced in her lower register and in chest resonance support. Alongside her, Gloria Londoño’s Melibea exhibited a plethora of discretion and delicacy; and as Areusa Carolina Barca proved to be a more than model, agreeable singer. Below them came Alain Damas (whose Calisto was penetrating and nasal in alt;) and José A. García-Quijada made a discreet Sempronius. As Pármeno Andrés del Pino was a hit with the audience in his burlesque songs. Belén Elvira and Soledad Cardoso completed the roster as Lucrecia and Areusa respectively.

The other side of the footlights, the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid was directed by a somewhat drowsy Miquel Ortega, who maybe failed to exploit to the maximum the possibilities offered by a score of this kind. Antonio Fauró’s Teatro de la Zarzuela Chorus, for their part, managed to interpret their few but very attractive utterances with the requisite Renaissance-style good taste and discretion.

Last not least, we should reserve a place of honour for stage director Ignacio García, although on this occasion he didn’t shine as far as production of the acting was concerned, he did manage to coordinate a exceptional team to imagine and realize this Celestina – set designer Domenico Franchi, whose work was met with the audience’s praise and amazement, Lluis Juste de Nin as designer of some genuinely beautiful costumes, and Vinicio Cheli, whose lighting created a palpably sensual stage atmosphere.

So a good start for the season at Teatro de la Zarzuela ... and for next year, if it is going to give operatic stage premieres, how about Sorozábal’s Juan José, which in a few months’ time will be tempting us in concert version?

© Enrique Mejías García 2008
translation © Christopher Webber 2008

La Celestina (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) c. Jesus AlcantaraLa Celestina, music and libretto by Joaquín Nin-Culmell, after La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, with additional material from Juan del Encina (World Premiere)
Cast: Alicia Berri, Alain Damas, Gloria Londoño, José García-Quijada, Andrés del Pino, Carolina Barca, Belén Elvira, Soledad Cardoso
Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (Titular del Teatro de La Zarzuela); Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela (d. Antonio Fauró); Artistic Director - Ana Mª. Iriarte; Conductor - Miquel Ortega; Director - Ignacio García; Designer - Domenica Franchi; Lighting - Vinicio Cheli; Costumes - Lluis Juste de Nin
Production: Fundación Ana María Iriarte in collaboration with Teatro de la Zarzuela, with sponsorship from Caja Duero and in conjunction with Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales

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20 October 2008