Guillermo Perrín and Miguel de
The best wine is not always found in new bottles. And not every zarzuela is best seen in state of the art, hi-tech auteur productions. Lleó’s outrageous piece of quasi-biblical smut on the Joseph story – perhaps best described to unwitting English readers as a musical Carry On Up the Nile – is essentially rough vaudeville, best seen and experienced in as tacky a production as you like.
This one is nothing if not tacky. Creased backdrops and flimsy stage flats speak of an innocent age from long ago. Costumes and deco-disco wigs are garish, tawdry and cheap. Orchestral forces are sparse, liberally enhanced by that modern blessing the multi-purpose digital keyboard. Veteran Antonio Ramallo’s production is every bit as crude, vulgar and obvious as his Sioux-style makeup for Pharaoh. And it all works magically. We like.
It’s something of a magic trick that brave, old-style touring companies such as Nieves Fernández de Sevilla’s can keep going at all. Money is evidently very tight, sometimes to hilarious effect – the parsimonious rose-petal strewings for the big Triumphal Entrance were redolent of the cheapskate excesses of Ken Russell’s pier-end take on The Boy Friend. Principals and chorus are a ramshackle bunch, ranging from excellent top-flight professionals through to gawky young tyros, family friends and relations, and a sprinkling of oddballs in between who seem to be out on day release. It’s a weird mix.
And what a weirdly potent mix of music Lleó provides, too. A swish of a gong and we’re flung into a full-scale Egyptian triumphal return, overblown choruses, sinuous vocal lines and exotic woodwind trills all redolent of Verdi’s Aida to greet victorious General Putifar and his marital prize, the luscious Lota. Operatic grandeur is swiftly undermined by the news of Putifar’s unlucky battle wound: an arrow has shot off a vital part of the General’s anatomy [c.f. René González’s intriguing note on this]. Then we’re in a dazzling world of pure – or rather, impure – frivolity, filled with delicious French waltzes, sexy cuplés and vibrant españoladas as frustrated Lota tries to get her sexual expectations satisfied, if not by her husband then at least by the neatly-turned Jewish lad he’s given her as a slave. The rest we know – or if we don’t, we need to read our bibles or Lloyd-Webber almanacs more assiduously.
The double-entendres are unrelenting. Indeed, in Manuel Paso’s ever-popular, two-act rewrite of the short original the filth’s so obvious as to be scarcely double at all. He pads out the action with a series of front-cloth scenes featuring an important new courtier-admirer for Chaste Joseph, the eunuch Arikon (“maricón” means “queer”), which provides a packet of gay gags. Even given with veteran Emilio Carratero’s admirable restraint these pantomimic scenes sit uneasily with the rest, forcing an oddly nasty homophobic strand into the otherwise entirely likeable character of the lead man, when Joseph brutally rejects Arikon’s advances. Almodóvar this ain’t.
No matter. The rest of the soufflé rises, with Carlos Crooke (a ringer for Jim Dale in the Carry On films) in great vocal and physical form as the harassed hero, Rosa Ruiz and Lola Coll admirable as his voluptuous pursuers, and a really well sung Putifar from Lorenzo Moncloa. Alicia Montesquieu delivers the famous cuplés “Ay ba!” with sexy assurance, and organises the audience sing-along for the encore verse (“flutes are long, trombones are longer, but the conductor’s baton’s the longest of all”) with aplomb. Vicente Palop deserves credit for keeping things going forcefully in the pit, and Cristina Guadaño’s dancers carry all before them – not least in Pharoah’s Dream, a racy Madrid review hop (bum-slaps and all) done to Lleó’s irresistible Spanish garrotín.
It’s rude and crude. The music’s fabulously good. La corte de Faraón’s been doing the rounds for over a hundred years now, but on this showing only a fool would bet on its not being around for another hundred or so at the very least.
© Christopher Webber 2011