El dúo de La africana

Music by Manuel Fernández Caballero

Text by Miguel Echegaray

Production: Teatro de la Zarzuela, 1985

Teatro Real, Madrid
(30th December 2003)

Ignacio Jassa Haro

El duo de La africana - costume design (1985 production, Teatro de la Zarzuela)
Costume sketch by Elisa Ruiz
(Teatro de la Zarzuela, 1984/5)

Zarzuela at the Real!

Zarzuela has finally made it to Madrid's Temple of Opera! Since the reopening of the Teatro Real as an opera house seven years ago, only one of the programmed productions, Las golondrinas by José María Usandizaga, María Lejárraga and Gregorio Martínez Sierra, could be seen as from the world of zarzuela, although even that was performed in the opera version by the composer's brother. Zarzuela in its pure state appears now, in the shape of a very popular género chico work and no less good for that - El dúo de La africana by Manuel Fernández Caballero and Miguel Echegaray.

You may well wonder how it is possible for an opera house to program a music theatre piece little more than an hour long, on its own. And certainly it is not very common in theatre, at least in Spain, to bring an audience together for such short measure. Originally chico theatre - straight theatre or lyric works in one act lasting about one hour - presented its fare continuously but in isolation. Up to four different titles would be given successively with a change of audience who could if they wished return for the cost of a new ticket. The modern convention is to give chico zarzuelas in double or even triple bills, equivalent in duration to single works of greater amplitude. So it is quite unusual to program a chico work on its own; when this happens the evening is usually rounded out with an anthology of zarzuela numbers. And in one way that is what happened in the Teatro Real's New Year production, but the addition appeared as a "surprise party", as well as taking on the festive character of an affectionate celebration of the year's end.

The production we saw is well known. It is a staging devised by José Luis Alonso (1924-1990) when he was Artistic Director of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, premiered in the 1984/85 season there and revived on several later occasions. The stage director, Juanjo Granda, was Alonso's assistant director; and here as elsewhere he has tried to reconstruct the work of his remarkable mentor. Still, it is not necessary to have seen the original show to sense that he has made of an inimitable production work a lifeless, mimetic copy. The obsession with imitation has resulted in an unnatural stiffness totally alien to the spirit of the original staging.

As a result the main interpreters, all artists of repute, were unable to give everything of themselves. The exception without doubt was Luis Álvarez in the role of Cherubini, who has the lion's share of the work's humour. He was very much at home with the extraordinary linguistic burlesque of gracious Italian, one of several telling strokes in Echegaray's libretto. María Rodríguez, with a scarcely accurate Sevillian accent, did not command the teasing ambiguity required by the role of La Antonelli; vocally she fulfilled its demands. Guillermo Orozco gave to Giussepini greater scenic presence without in the end achieving the desired naturalness; luckily he made no effort to put on a funny accent and sang throughout with firmness and taste. Trinidad Iglesias' Amina, Pedro Miguel Martínez's Bajo, and the Doña Serafina of Milagros Ponti were excellent individual contributions without really combining to make a whole.

The orchestra, that got out of time with the staging at one or two isolated moments, played simply. Have the players already forgotten, in this centennial year of the Sinfónica de Madrid, so much from their recent occupation of the pit in Calle Jovellanos? The chorus, a real protagonist in the work - the coro de la murmuración is often anthologised - were sometimes difficult to understand, but made a rich impression vocally.

Alonso's original stage settings and costumes maintain their freshness. The last scene was beautified for this gala occasion by a handsome painted drop curtain of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. José Luis Alonso thought up for this a curious external point of view, with "transparent" front curtains which allow us to penetrate the mysteries behind when the action demands they be lowered, instead of the internal point of view (from the stage towards the auditorium) of the original production at the Teatro Apolo, where the designer Amalio Fernández reproduced the auditorium of that famous theatre on Calle de Alcalá, in all its luxuriant detail.

In the last analysis, and putting aside the subtleties that were missing, the performance succeeded at the interpretative level as well as in the staging. Zarzuela is a very hard form of musical theatre to get right; the purely theatrical measure is difficult to find, and the musical territory proves a Utopia beyond the reach of many, uniformly dull readings. Both Granda and conductor López Cobos were guilty of that: just as surely as the former overplayed his hand, the latter failed to achieve that elusive musical ideal.

Between the first and second scenes an extra one was rustled up that turned this zarzuela into something rather less chica. The theatrical milieu of El dúo de La africana allowed the insertion into the plot of a supposed selection of artists auditioning for Signore Cherubini's cheap opera company. First up was Isabel Rey who sang the Carceleras from Las hijas del Zebedeo (Chapí) most seductively. María José Montiel followed with a masterful interpretation of the Spanish habanera from Bizet's Carmen, accompanied by the chorus - gaining the biggest applause of the evening. Esperanza Roy treated us to the cuplés babilónicos from La corte de faraón (Lleó); the child violinist Carla Marrero played Pablo Sarasate's Gypsy Airs Op. 20 with spectacular virtuosity; last, Ana María Sánchez whose moving dramatic quality infused the romanza "Sierras de Granada" from La tempranica (Giménez), absurdly denuded of its choral support. These attractive extras were joyously cheered by a public clearly enchanted by so much beautiful and popular repertoire.

The initiative of these performances, not included in the opera season but inaugurating a new series baptised Christmas at the Real, is down to the Fundación de la Zarzuela Española. The Teatro de la Zarzuela has also played its part in "fathering" the production they mounted. The Teatro Real makes up the third in the triumvirate of institutions concerned in the project. Their leading players have been fired with enthusiasm for this event - Jesús López Cobos (Musical Director of the Real) took personal charge from the pit; whilst Emilio Sagi and Inés Argüelles (Artistic director and Manager of the Theatre respectively) made pleasant appearances on stage likeably dressed up as members of Cherubini's company, giving a support beyond the mere obligation imposed by their position. On the other side of the footlights, two other important institutions - Madrid's City Council and the Royal Family - added their endorsement of the event through the presence in the Plaza de Oriente auditorium of their heads: the Mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, and the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I.

It is highly encouraging when these institutions (and the people who lead them) have done everything possible to make sure that this brilliant spectacle in its no less grandiose setting has become a reality. Zarzuela has entered the Opera House on a very good footing. Let us hope this is not a one-off event, and that its good all-round reception makes a regular presence possible in future seasons of the Teatro Real.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2004

Homage to José Luis Alonso, in collaboration with the Teatro de la Zarzuela, with sponsorship from the Fundación de la Zarzuela Española

Luis Álvarez (Cherubini); María Rodríguez (La Antonelli); Guillermo Orozco (Giussepini); Trinidad Iglesias (Amina); Pedro Miguel Martínez (El Bajo); Milagros Ponti (Doña Serafina); Javier Ferrer (Inocencio Pérez); Isabel Ayúcar (Maestra repetidora); José Antonio Sanguino (Un inspector); Coro de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid; Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid; José Luis Alonso (Stage and Costume Design); José Luis Canales (Lighting Designer); Juanjo Granda (Stage Director, after the original staging by José Luis Alonso); Jesús López Cobos (Conductor)

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