Four dates mark out the "live history" of Ildegonda, the first opera composed by Emilio Arrieta (1821-1894) to a libretto by Temistocle Solera (1815-1878). 1845, the year of its Milan premiere, where it was performed in the conservatory of the city of La Scala where the composer completed his studies; 1849, the year of its Spanish premiere in front of a restricted audience in the theatre of Madrid's Royal Palace; 1854, the year of its public premiere in the capital's Teatro Real; and 2004, year of its first modern revival in concert, in the same opera house after 150 years of oblivion.
The Teatro Real concert launched an interesting project entitled "Classics in the Real". The aim is to revive Spanish operas premiered in the building, in concert versions which will later be commercially recorded and released on disc. This investment by the Real in its dust-covered archives is worthy of praise. The initiative is possible thanks to recent musicological research, on behalf of the titanic efforts of many Spanish composers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to create a National Opera.
19th century production and musical facilities were poor, so no wonder artistic results irrespective of the intrinsic merits of any particular work were unsatisfactory and unable to awaken public interest in Spanish opera: in truth it is highly likely that even a Barber of Seville or Il Trovatore would have failed in the circumstances. But it's also true that after the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty, opera in Spain was dominated by Italian artistic and fiscal interests which clearly compromised the potential of Spanish composers and interpreters.
In fact Ildegonda succeeded admirably in its first, private production for the limited audience of Isabel II's court. Much less fortunate was the public premiere five years later at the Teatro Real, the inadequacy of which set the tone for a sad procession of occasional Spanish stagings which followed. No such cheapskate presentation afflicted this luxurious modern revival. Ana María Sánchez as the eponymous heroine shone in an admirable exhibition of musicality. A convincing actress, even here in concert Sánchez gave evidence of her dramatic powers. José Bros, in the attractive role of Rizzardo Mazzafiore, made a polished if less personal impact. The encomiums and applause for these protagonists were loud indeed. Carlos Álvarez and Mariola Cantarero, as the heroine's father (Rolando) and confidante (Ildebene) took important supporting roles with musical and dramatic point. The remainder of the cast were equally strong, the choral and orchestral contribution was excellent, showing ease and familiarity with the work. Jesús López Cobos showed notable humility in putting Arrieta's needs first: the prestigious conductor focussed the talent at his disposal to the service of this beautiful but unfamiliar opera.
Solera's libretto is a drama conventionally within the great romantic tradition. Still, it is not devoid of dramatic value; the story is forcefully developed in some effective situations of which Arrieta, with his strong sense of theatre, takes full advantage. In broad terms Ildegonda tells of the sentimental misfortunes, culminating in melodramatic death, of a young woman of noble birth, who loves a man of the people though promised to a nobleman whom she does not love. Ildegonda and Rizzardo swear an impossible eternal love. Her father and brother challenge Rizzardo for honour's sake, and as a result Roggiero, the brother, dies. Rizzardo, incomprehensibly spared execution, goes off to the crusades to make amends, returning to find Ildegonda cloistered for refusing to marry her noble fiancé. In the face of his daughter's deathbed pleas Rolando is reconciled with Rizzardo, to the satisfaction of the dying Ildegonda.
Musically this work is best heard as the culmination of a formative process, at the start of the career of a musician who from the first was a natural operatic composer. Arrieta wrote Ildegonda as an obligatory study exercise, showing off his comprehensive knowledge of Italian operatic methods without simply imitating them, demonstrating his own creativity with a degree of originality.
How does the Italianate Arrieta of Ildegonda sound? Divinely Italian! Its music is familiar to the aficionado's ear without giving the negative impression of conventionality. To its dramatic character can be added the virtues of melodic quality and orchestral inventiveness, though Arrieta never overpowers the singers. In addition the formal structure has a certain modernity - it is not a simple succession of numbers but rather the individual movements are integrated into well-organised longer scenes, as the drama requires.
It shouldn't be forgotten that eventually the historical circumstances of 1850's Madrid forced Arrieta to neglect his operatic vocation to dedicate himself to the new genre being developed at that moment zarzuela. The finest fruit of his labour from that time was expended on the new form to which he made such a valuable stylistic and musical contribution, in three distinct phases. The first was that in which his new works followed the pattern of the emblematic Jugar con fuego of his friend Barbieri. Next we see an Arrieta saddled with bufo projects, precursory to a certain extent of what was to become the género chico. During the final stage of his career he was able to make works of operatic scope but zarzuelistic character in an attempt to revitalize the zarzuela grande.
The Teatro Real has glanced back attractively at its own archives. Still, it is frustrating that because of absurd chauvinism, the revivals programmed for the future are limited to operas premiered in the building itself. It would be much more richly interesting to leave the narrow confines of the Real's history, extending them to encompass the whole history of Spanish lyric theatre, where for qualitative as much as quantitative reasons many zarzuelas stand in advance of the select listing of proposed operas. In Arrieta's specific case, it would have been interesting at least to have been able to hear El dominó azul (1853), Un sarao y una soirée (1866) or San Franco de Sena (1883), all of which met with public success and gained a place in the history of Spanish lyric theatre that Ildegonda, despite its merits, has not come to occupy in the Italian equivalent.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro,
ILDEGONDA, Melodramma serio
in two acts. Music: Emilio Arrieta. Libretto: Temistocle Solera. Premiered in
the teatro del Conservatorio de Milan, June 1845. Critical edition of the
score, María Encina Cortizo & Ramón Sobrino (ICCMU, Madrid,