Once every couple of years of so Teatro de la Zarzuela comes up with a disinterment which reveals unexpected vitality in the corpse. During the decade and more I’ve been watching productions here, Gaztambide’s El juramento and Calleja’s Las bribonas have risen from the grave as lost masterpieces; and although Los diamantes de la corona was never quite lost (thanks to Argenta’s much-cut but lively 1950’s recording) it has been waiting in the wings over seventy years for a revival of this quality.
For everything here is quality. It’s perhaps easy to overstate the impact of the antique stage design. Though it certainly takes 19th century trompe-l'œil flats-and-backdrop style as a starting point it also takes full advantage of modern lighting and stage tricks to create the robbers cave, country estate and royal palace so elegantly evoked. Much more important than this, José Carlos Plaza has excelled in directing his performers with rigour, precision and subtlety to enable them to create credible 3D characters to inhabit the 2D settings – this is a real actor-singer show, despite the bel canto operatic demands of Barbieri’s vocal music.
And that music, added to the high-quality interpretation, is at the heart of things. Number after number hits the spot, memorable solos and ensembles full of good tunes, and in one case – the Finale of Act 2 – a stunningly modern-sounding virtuoso demonstration of Spanish cross-rhythms and bold brass scoring which would not have been out of place in The Three-cornered Hat. Wonderful stuff. Above all Barbieri really fleshes out his characters so that the tenor hero Sandoval, his unwilling mezzo fiancée Diana and of course Catalina the Robber-Queen herself come across clearly as plausible people, through their music.
It’s fascinating to compare Barbieri’s score with Auber’s original setting of essentially the same libretto. The Frenchman excels in quirky wit, lightness of touch and pleasingly elegant structures. The Spaniard is weightier, with a more pronounced interest in character and several moments of stunning originality. The scene where the bandits escape from their cave disguised as monks is the touchstone: where Auber provides a wry, sinuous religiose melody of great charm, Barbieri is much more pungently satirical in his full-on ecclesiastical tone, adding a melodram for the robber chief written out with a precision anticipating Schoenberg’s sprechgesang. Amazing! A brace of fine composers, a brace of fine scores.
From the brace of good casts I’ll invidiously single out three singers. Carlos Cosías’s Sandoval is a complete joy, wittily acted and freshly, mellifluously sung – a tenor star in the making. Lyric soprano Yolanda Auyanet already is a star, her Catalina not only sung with sweet security and pinpoint coloratura accuracy, but acted with an attention to detail which rendered her regal romanza in Act 3 (Barbieri’s “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”) the musical as well as theatrical crown of the work, appropriately enough. The casting of Antonio Ordóñez as the villain of the piece is a masterstroke. Instead of the anticipated light tenor cómico we have his powerful lyric voice to add gravitas to Barbieri’s ensembles: Campomayor is after all the Regent, not a political buffoon, and this beautifully observed portrayal gives us comedy of situation rather than a few funny gags.
Enrique Mejías García has rightly praised Cristóbal Soler’s perfectly judged tempi and immaculate ensemble. I’d want to give Antonio Fauró’s Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela special commendation. On May 29th I happened to be sitting next to a gentleman from New York, who had never seen a zarzuela before. He was understandably impressed all round, but reserved his warmest praise for the Chorus: “They’re better than the Metropolitan Opera.” Nothing to add to that.
© Christopher Webber 2010
Los diamantes de la
corona (Music: Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, text: Francisco
17th June 2010