Isaac Albéniz · Arthur Law
After listening to Isaac Albeniz’s The Magic Opal (1893) the penny-in-the-slot procedure would be to detect influences, look for models to explain the piece. But ... vain work! Yes it’s true that one could reflect and note the Sullivanesque use of the chorus, the patter song, the “gothic” baritone number and the protagonist (Lolika’s) Waltz. However, it’s disorienting when one begins to find – nearly a decade too early! – distinctly Edwardian traces that remind us of the melancholy sweetness of Monckton (specifically, in certain phrases of the waltz or comic quartet); of German’s lyrical style (the love duets and compact finales); and, of course, the exultant lightness of Sidney Jones ( "When I was a baby" and Lolika’s march in the Act 2).
But let's put aside childish things: The Magic Opal is first and last an English comic opera at the crossroads of the 1890’s, a work that writes a chapter in the history of English music theatre and which sounds – no doubt about it – purely British. The polished, sonorous instrumentation may hint at indigenous models such as Bretón or even Giménez. There may be some who’d insist that the music has “Hispanic” qualities, because of the recurrent use of alhambrismo motifs, but these are mere cosmetic adornments to make the music sound “Mediterranean”. This English opera is set in Greece, and such Moorish coloration worked to suggest that in the Britain of that time; and if it didn’t convey this to Madrid in 1894, that was perhaps, as Walter Aaron Clark argues, due to the unfamiliarity of the Madrid public then with the conventions of English operetta.
Along with Pepita Jiménez this is Albéniz’s best stage work, more theatrically effective than anything in his operas Merlin and Henry Clifford, or the pallid género chico zarzuela San Antonio de la Florida. Its non-realistic magical plot would be no bar to stage revival, back (who knows?) in the West End or in Spanish on Calle Jovellanos. Maybe it’s time to raise again that sonorous cry of “Barbarians!” which Camprodón screamed at our grandfathers when they had more of a taste for cheap musical sainetes and the sweet mellifluousness of Lecocq. Nor would it be unreasonable to ask for a commercial recording, considering the critical edition Borja Mariño has made, adding a whole series of additional numbers and rewrites that Albéniz composed for its second London premiere as The Magic Ring (also 1893).
The revival of The Magic Opal in concert boasted an artistic team which varied between the merely competent and truly exceptional. I can’t fail to mention the exquisite vocal skill of Estefanía Perdomo, with an ideal operetta voice, even registers and powerful projection. Her characterisation of Lolika – with inevitable Gallicism – was the hit of the evening, moving the audience with her waltz and duets and enchanting in her lighter songs. The male leads were César San Martín and José Ferrero, two substantial voices who blended together like a charm in their encounters, and with the soprano. The comic performers Javier Franco, Pablo López and Damián del Castillo gave committed performances – as did Anna Tonna (with striking beauty of timbre) and Marina Pardo (who perhaps had not quite the expected rotundity of British contraltos in this repertoire).
Coro Talía had been impressively well rehearsed, perhaps too much so for a work of this nature. They sounded refined and certainly involved in their “fa-la-las”, “ring-a-rings” and onomatopoeic sounds, such as the fun, repeated “Hush!” in the gloomy “Legend of the Monastery”. Orquesta Sinfónica Chamartín, conducted by Silvia Sanz Torre, was not at the same level as the rest, with notable deficiencies in wind tuning, thin sound, and without providing much energy at requisite times.
© Enrique Mejías García 2010