Into the Lost World ...
The setting of Madrid's Centro Cultural de la Villa is highly dramatic. The subterranean walkway to the foyer takes the audience beneath the fountains of Plaza Colón into a space directly behind its awesome cascades. The sight and sound of the drumming water cuts the audience off from the buzz of the modern capital, ushering us down towards something romantic, mysterious, atavistic - perhaps even into a Lost World.
Said Lost World was duly discovered, embalmed but intact, in these productions of Compañía Musiarte. For many Spanish theatregoers, "zarzuela" is synonymous with old-fashioned, ultra-conservative, dead theatre. Those of us foreigners who habitually confine ourselves to the more progressive presentations of the Teatro de la Zarzuela might be forgiven for believing that such opinions were themselves out of date, but undoubtedly there exists a thick sub-stratum of professional zarzuela for which the criticism holds good.
With a capable pit band of 32 players and a chorus of 24, under the secure musical direction of Tulio Gagliardo, the problems of Compañía Musiarte do not stem from lack of musical preparation. Nor would it be fair to belittle the talents of many of the principals, a stimulating mix of talented young performers with established singers and superannuated stars. It is a tribute to the company's directors, Antonio Lagar and María Dolores Travesedo, that they can sustain national tours of the great zarzuelas with a company this size, without any large public grants or funding. To attract the audiences they need, a degree of conservatism is inevitable.
The problem though is not one of money, or conservatism, or rehearsal time, but rather of theatrical imagination and technical expertise. La dolorosa on an essentially bare stage need not be the distressing travesty we saw at the Centro Cultural de la Villa, with random entrances and exits, lack of any kind of dramatic focus and amateurish lighting. Any unsuspecting visitor experiencing the piece for the first time would not have suspected that this was one of the masterpieces of the repertoire. At the top of the action Rafael duly lugs on his painting of the Virgin Dolorosa, but neither he nor his clerical auditors pay the remotest attention to it during his great Relato, which becomes a simple matter of "stand and sing". What happened to drama? To theatricality?
La revoltosa fared better, with a simple but functional tenement courtyard at least providing the right number of entrances and exits. The staging problems of the complex comedy ensembles had been addressed, though again the farcical fun of the last scene was scotched by inadequate lighting which made it look as if the characters weren't so much stumbling in the dark as undergoing group psychotherapy after closing time in El Corte Inglés. Still, Chapí's La revoltosa much more than La dolorosa is a study in community life and dynamism. It stands or falls on the quantity as well as the quality of its performers, and in this respect it was far luckier than Serrano's work.
Those performers ... to take the superannuated stars first, we had the great Miguel de Grandy, and whatever might be said about his directorial vacuity his skills and energies as a performer are undiminished. His Cándido in La revoltosa was a model of comic finesse, clarity and wit. José Luis Cancela has clearly been a fine singer in his time; but now that he cannot securely hold pitch or keep time musically, or say a single line without first pausing for reflection, only noble presence rescues his Prior (La dolorosa) from artistic oblivion. His Candelas (La revoltosa) is as complaisant as it is traditional.
The established singers, with the mystifying exception of a bafflingly inadequate Dolores in La dolorosa, emerged with credit. Guadalupe Sánchez could probably perform Mari-Pepa (La revoltosa) in her sleep, and although her vocal timbre is more fino than oloroso these days her theatrical and musical personality are as winning as ever. Her rich-voiced Felipe (Salvador Baladez) brought considerable personality to bear, though much less focus - which maybe accounts for his needing a prompt from his partner during their famous verbal sparring match. The great dúo was lacking in subtle refinement, but together Sánchez and Baladez did more than enough to bring this complex pair to life.
Last and best, two promising performers in La dolorosa. Nacho Muñoz, the chunky, streetwise Perico, took what few acting opportunities de Grandys threadbare staging allowed him. If his vocal range and projection can be developed, many engagements as a tenor cómico beckon to a performer of such charm and communicability. Francisco Pardo, the tall, ascetically spare Rafael, has a tenor of quite another stamp, a fresh, well-supported lyric sound with personality and a thrilling ring to the top. Although his performance skills need to be honed in more auspicious surroundings, the basic material is there for a fine career - provided he does not push his voice too hard, too soon.
Despite Compañia Musiarte's worn-out production style it was a pleasure to experience this coupling of two masterpieces. The dancing in La revoltosa was unexpectedly good, the choral singing acceptable, the minor roles in both works given with enthusiasm. Re-emerging from under the waterfall, the unexpected thought occurred that perhaps after all there is a deal to be said for the modern world - at least when it comes to technical skill and the freedom allowed to creative, theatrical imagination. The staging of zarzuela is too vital a matter to be left in the nostalgic limbo of a Lost World.
© Christopher Webber, 2003
Casts included: La dolorosa - Mabel González (Dolores); Luisi Torres (Nicasia); Francisco Pardo (Rafael); Nacho Muñoz (Perico); José Luis Cancela (Prior). La revoltosa - Guadalupe Sánchez (Mari Pepa), Luisa Torres (Soledad); Concha Arana (Gorgonia); Felipe (Salvador Baladez); Candelas (José Luis Cancela); Cándido (Miguel de Grandy); Atenedoro (Fernando Pelegrín); Ballet Español de Carmina Gil. Tulio Gagliardo (conductor); Miguel de Grandy (director).