The town of Alcalá de Henares, thirty kilometres northeast of Madrid, is much more than a suburban dormitory. Its history goes back to Roman times, when it was named Complutum. The Latin name lives on in the nickname of the famous Complutense University, founded in Alcalá by Cardinal Cisneros in the late fifteenth century though transplanted to Madrid in the nineteenth. Twenty centuries of intense history and its emblematic link with the glorious Golden Age (which shows itself in an impressive list of buildings, civil and religious, lovingly maintained by the townspeople) make for a great incentive to visit Alcalá de Henares. The 2003 reopening of the ancient Corral de Comedias [theatre] in Plaza de Cervantes, known as the “shoemakers’ yard”, added another gem to the huge list of attractions in a town which gave birth to Catherine of Aragon, Miguel de Cervantes and Manuel Azaña.
The Corral de Comedias de Alcalá is a unique space which encapsulates four centuries of Spanish theatrical history. Built in 1601 and opened a year later, the original fabric was adapted in the light of evolving dramatic conventions. Excavations revealed that it began as a theatre yard, of which the paved floor, tiers, boxes and gallery (reserved for female spectators) are preserved today. Then in the mid-eighteenth century (1769) the enclosure was turned into a neoclassical proscenium arch theatre. The impressive wooden stage dating from that period, and which gives the space such splendid acoustics, is once again visible today thanks to excellent restoration. More was necessary because in 1832, when the theatre was transformed into a romantic Italian-style auditorium with an uncommon elliptical floor, the wooden dome was covered by a false ceiling now removed. After 1945 the building was used as a cinema, until closed and left derelict in the 70’s. At the end of the following decade restoration work commenced under the aegis of architect-designers Juan Sanz and Miguel Ángel Coso, who have managed to harmoniously integrate elements from all four centuries to make what was originally a museum and more recently also a practical theatre.
This remarkable venue has boasted a regular theatrical season since 2005, when its management gave a home to the prestigious Teatro de la Abadía de Madrid company with rich and imaginative programming. Lyric theatre has made an occasional appearance since then. Now those appearances have been grouped together to into a brief but substantial season under the title “Corral Lírico”. A chamber-staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale plus two concerts of operetta and zarzuela have made for an thoughtful overview of three distinct but complementary forms of European music theatre.
The Operetas concert brought together the soprano Amanda Serna with pianist Jorge Robaina in a “crash course” on the Viennese and French varieties of the genre. The audiences who attended one of the three nights they were teaching this “course” enjoyed the delights of a pleasant repertoire that – sadly – is rarely heard hereabouts. The show was overloaded by the way, in every one of the glamorous trapping associated with operetta: champagne toasts, dominos, plumed hats, jewelry, satin dresses… However, “Professor” Serna’s commentary had a nicely ironic tone, that along with her natural likeability neutralised the apparent tightening of the corset to which operetta was subjected.
Between songs Serna related the salient career details of Offenbach, Strauss or Lehár, whilst also managing to give a context to the numbers she was about to sing. A certain tension in her under-rehearsed delivery told us that greater spontaneity would have been ideal. Vocally her vocal interpretation was always top-notch, showing off her generous voice and its beautiful velvety timbre. But equally she failed to adapt to the stylistic demands of all the chosen repertoire. In the Viennese section she displayed a rigidity that’s maybe down to lack of ease with the German language – for sure in the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria production of El conde de Luxemburgo, in Spanish on DVD, Serna came much closer to the spirit of Lehár’s music. The second, French half was much more natural, especially in Offenbach where she combined thrilling verve with delightful sweetness. The encores demonstrated the usual point that understanding the text enhances the pleasure of lyric theatre: in the two highlights from Fernández Caballero’s Chateau Margaux Serna raised the roof.
The zarzuela “spectacular”– more of a “recital” to my way of thinking – was content (for its three similar nights) to more or less let music and performances speak for themselves. Simple but expressive lighting and adequate stage direction (from Jesús Castejón) enhanced the careful vocal selections; as did the work of the three singers, not only acting onstage but moving and singing amongst the audience. All this gave the show more variety than the operetta recital. Every contribution was worthwhile. Carmen González is a consummate artist whose every breath in the romanza from El cabo primero and the dúo from La villana registered with extraordinary immediacy; the dúo from Jugar con fuego with Federico Gallar put us within a hair’s breadth of true theatricality. This powerful baritone was also convincing in “Dile” from Don Manolito and the chotis-dúo with tenor from La del manojo de rosas. But it was Eduardo Santamaría who showed I think the greatest consistency, whether in the songs from La villana, Doña Francisquita and Luisa Fernanda or in the duets; this Cantabrian tenor with his elegant phrasing, accurate intonation and beautiful timbre, put over his singing with an unusual force which made every one of his appearances thrilling.
Though I didn’t get to see Donizetti’s opera buffa I hope I can convey the overall impression made by this first Corral Lírico season. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the wonderful versatility of Alcalá’s venerable space, where until now I had only seen productions of Baroque theatre. The romantic stage music echoed around every corner of the old corral so naturally that I can only ask for more. Next season why not mount a full production of zarzuela specifically designed for the theatre itself? A suggestion: género ínfimo!
© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2008
Recital de Operetas . 2
December 2007. Amanda Serna (soprano); Jorge Robaina (piano). Part 1: “
Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss”, Giuditta (
Lehár); “ Heut’ noch werd’ ich Ehefrau”,
Der Graf von Luxemburg ( Lehár); “ Vilja”,
Die lustige Witwe ( Lehár) (piano sólo);
“ Mein Herr Marquis”, Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss
II); “ Die Lerche in blaue Höh´”, (J. Strauss II). Part
2: “Une gentile fauvette”, La Fauvette ( Messager);
“ Bruits lointane...O brises de la nuit”, Paul et
Virginia ( Massé); “ Autrefois plus d´un amant”,
La vie parisienne ( Offenbach); “O mon cher amant, je te
jure”, La Périchole ( Offenbach); “ J´en
prendre un, deux, trois,...” Pomme d´Api (
Offenbach). Encores: “Siempre lo decía nuestra directora”,
Chateau Margaux (Caballero); “Es este Burdeos un vino
hasta allí”, Chateau Margaux
24 January 2008