Music by Amadeo Vives/ Libretto by Luis Pascual Frutos
Amadeo Vives always surprises us. We expect his music to be sweetly distinctive and beautifully crafted, yet seeing one or other of his major zarzuelas or operas on the stage is to experience an unsuspected power. Whatever their differences in size and shape Bohemios, La villana and La generala come across as ‘big’ pieces which transcend simply local importance. There is a sense that any of these – and maybe others still languishing in obscurity – could join Doña Francisquita on at least the fringe of the international repertoire.
Yet experience hadn’t prepared me for the impact of his two-act, 1914 ‘lyric eclogue’ Maruxa, in this important Teatro de la Zarzuela production. Any worries about the detail of Luis Pascual Frutos’s allegedly maudlin libretto are forgotten in the face of the opera’s strong and clear structure. An elegant musical refinement has always been obvious from the opera’s four complet(ish) recordings, but its seamless mix of distinctive Galician flavours, flamboyant ‘Spanishry’ and an almost Eastern European style of national romanticism prove unexpectedly potent. Another surprise is the sheer size of Vives’s orchestra. With its triple flutes and trumpets, four horns and generous percussion including celeste and glockenspiel, this is no ordinary Madrid pit band – even allowing for the Galician bagpipe and drums for the Act 2 folk scene – and the sheer volume of orchestral sound can on occasion be almost Straussian.
Many piquant effects register marvellously in the theatre. Take the main theme of Pablo’s famous Act 2 romanza ‘Aquí n’este sitio’, chastely scored initially for strings, then subtly cushioned by double bass pizzicati, harp, divisi violins and cello arpeggiation on its recapitulation. In a score concerned to evoke the rural world these effects are almost graphic, like the sun suddenly coming out over the mountain meadows, revealing the full range of floral colour to gorgeous effect. On a couple of occasions I was even reminded of Janáček’s ability to superimpose conversational, human dialogue on the natural landscape.
The subtle play of motifs associated with particular characters is equally intriguing. One example: as Pablo and Maruxa escape from their sexual persecutors at the opera’s conclusion, it is significant that the powerful orchestral coda quotes not the lovers’ themes, but a strong rhythmic-melodic pattern associated with Rosa’s power and desire. It is as if Vives can’t help firming-up the conclusion that this capricious, rich city girl has not only been the main protagonist, but also engaged his own deepest musical interests.
When a production stimulates so many thoughts about an established work, it must be doing something right. The miracle of Paco Azorín’s directing and design for Maruxa is that he does nearly everything right. Eschewing pretty-pretty, regional eye-candy, Azorín has done Vives the service of taking the under-rated dramatic content of his opera seriously, even sombrely. The result is a revelation: had we previously seen that Maruxa was quite this great a work?
With its slate-grey floor tiles, diaphanous, grey-green curtaining and monochrome projections of regional flora and fauna (notably the shepherd and shepherdess’s ovine charges) the staging evokes a strong sense of rural Galicia. Better still, his direction of the five principals is unfailingly detailed and well-motivated. That infamous passage where Maruxa runs crying to Rosa about the loss of her pet lamb Linda is a typical example of the his thoughtfulness. Far from being embarrassed by Frutos’s text, Azorín spots that the musical setting is amazingly strong – even tragic – in tone, reflecting Maruxa’s deeper doubts about the fidelity of her straying human pet, Pablo. He accordingly asks his singers to go for the jugular, playing the moment without sly ironies and driving the musical narrative forward with emotional force.
Azorín’s only significant misstep (in my book) was to leave Rosa’s intensely physical seduction of Pablo in his head – and ambiguously even there. The more graphic Rosa’s temptations, the stronger our sense that power and wealth have sullied the free-spirited idyll that the young shepherd shares with Maruxa. That is why the opera’s classic pastoral love games, with rural simplicities under threat from city sophistication, can turn the screw so convincingly in Act 2, before Rufo cuts the knot and rescues the lovers. In many ways he is the plot’s pivotal character, pessimistic, puritanical (much in the manner of one of Smetana’s village elders) and in the pay of the rulers – but finally sound at heart, in a change of allegiance from town to country which allows a ‘happy ending’ at Rosa’s expense.
There is an unexpectedly neat touch – literally so – at the point Rufo burns his bridges by tearing up the note arranging a tryst between his mistress and Pablo, when the action earns him a gentle touch on the shoulder from the dancer (María Cabeza de Vaca) representing the natural Spirit of Galicia. A significant directorial presence throughout, Galicia’s ‘birth’ is mimed in silence at curtain-up, to the recital of a noble 19th century canto gallego by Rosalía de Castro; and her later guises as Linda the lamb (whose fate in this production was not a happy one!) and as the victim of ecological disaster registered to good effect.
‘Ecological disaster?’, I hear you cry. That brings me to the boldest – and most controversial – stroke of Azorín’s production, his underscoring of Frutos’s slimline action with the 1976 pollution of Galicia’s coastline by the oil tanker Urquiola. Rosa’s landowning portfolio is expanded by her role as chairperson of the company responsible for the fiasco, so while much of Act 1’s action is counterpointed by self-congratulatory board meetings proceeding quietly in the background, the thrilling Act 2 Preludio (written it seems by Vives on the morning of the opera’s premiere!) heralds a change of tone. A breathtaking multimedia staging gives us the launch, burning and sinking of the tanker, after which the cast spend much of their time picking their way across the wrecked, oleaginous stage in authentic, 1970s white rescue overalls and hoods smeared in oil, water and mud – an effective piece of costuming from Anna Güell, which had the happy side-effect of rendering the Marriage of Figaro-like disguises of the final scene entirely plausible.
I suppose that white boiler suits and black oil buckets was not the context which many had anticipated for Vives’s rustic festiva gallega at the heart of Act 2; but this too emerged (especially given the purring, Rolls-Royce powerhouse of the Coro Titular del Teatro de la Zarzuela) as much more than a picturesque, regional divertissement. Tuneful Galician folk songs take on unexpectedly angry colours when stoically delivered during beach-cleaning duty – yet even this is no directorial sleight of hand, taking wing as it does from an easily-overlooked little scene in which the peasantry are exhorted to stop singing and go back to work by the officious overseer Eulalia (Julia Arellano). Once again, the choral scene’s dramatic muscle was unexpected.
Altogether Azorín’s corporate overlay enhanced Maruxa positively – not least in the massive orchestral postlude, where 2018’s new generation of slinky, black-clad bureaucrats advanced menacingly down to the footlights to take control. Individuals such as Maruxa and Pablo may manage to buck the system, but love’s triumphs are always going to be transient in a brutal, ethics-free globalised society.
Coming at last to the principals, only Simón Orfila’s joyously stentorian, besuited Rufo, umbrella in hand, is common to both casts. He made the most of ‘Golondrón’ (spliced in by Vives from an earlier source) and several other comedic opportunities, notably in the asides from behind his newspaper during the complex ‘double letter’ scene of Act 2. For this reviewer, the Bulgarian dramatic soprano Svetla Krasteva was also common to both performances as Rosa, Ekaterina Metlova (booked for January 27) being indisposed. There is attractive, pinging mettle in Krasteva’s voice, and although vocally she is too uneven across the registers to threaten recorded memories of Caballé and Lorengar, her characterisation of Rosa as a pill-popping, predatory ‘older woman’ provided a refreshingly original take on the role – the crucial dúo with Pablo compellingly presents female power and money making their play, in a mirror-image of our current (Anglo-American) anti-masculine sexual preoccupations.
Maite Alberola and Rodrigo Esteves (January 27) were the more ‘operatic’ of the two pairs of lovers, riding Vives’s orchestration with ease in their first scene, and well supported by Carlos Fidalgo’s coarsely overbearing Antonio, a Canio manque with the part’s cruel high notes at his disposal. Alberola’s individual lyric soprano asserted itself increasingly as the opera developed, and Esteves is nothing if not strong in lusty, baritone heft. On January 26 the attractively grainy Susana Cordón and occasionally raw-voiced Borja Quiza created for me the more detailed and individuated theatrical portraits, alongside a quirky, confidently-delivered Antonio from the promising Asturian light lyric tenor Jorge Rodriguez-Norton – again giving us an unexpected, revealingly teasing take on the character.
José Miguel Pérez Sierra’s conducting ensured that momentum was maintained – Vives delivers his pastoral with surprising urgency rather than bucolic relaxation, and there didn’t seem to be a wasted bar – and the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid were on good form both evenings, playing with particularly arresting precision at the second of these two performances.
After a season and more of … well, let’s just say ‘missed opportunities’, Teatro de la Zarzuela was in need of a serious artistic statement; and between them Vives, Azorín and the high-quality cast and chorus have delivered that in spades (or perhaps one should say, in buckets). For me, this was among the most significant – and best executed – productions I’ve been privileged to see in this historic theatre during the last twenty years. I hope that adventurous opera companies outside Spain will be alerted to the riches of Maruxa, as a blessed change from more hackneyed – and less accomplished – repertoire. Wexford, where are you?
© Christopher Webber, 2018