The three-act zarzuela grande Pan y toros (1864) is a historic watershed. In a decisive break away from French literary models, Picón sets his libretto firmly in Goya's Madrid, and his treatment of the chessboard political turmoil that wracked the capital in the years before the French Revolution is marked by a new seriousness of purpose. Aristocratic love-intrigue is not banished, but the passions of the central figures are as much political as amorous. Barbieri, though still heavily reliant on Donizettian models, is alike caught in the act of breaking free. The sheer quantity and quality of music in this two hour and three-quarter evening represents an ambitious advance on his earlier works; and in a melange of large-scale operatic ensembles, duets and arias, popular songs and dances, verse drama and lowlife comedy the composer brought into being the authentically Spanish world of the romantic zarzuela.
Barbieri had honed his dramatic skills in the string of stage works following Jugar con fuego (1851), and what impresses first here is his sure theatrical touch. Pan y toros is genuine drama para música, the composer's fresh and varied invention taking the bull by the horns throughout. The conflict between French and Spanish interests is neatly delineated by his juxtaposition of dance forms contredanse and gavotte for the Frenchified aristocrats, seguidillas and pasacalle for the People. Melodrama is used to excellent effect. Even a coloratura duelo for the two sopranos on opposing sides of the political divide manages to be both funny and seriously barbed, as well as a musical show-stopper. The Marseillaise, quoted in the opening bars of the Prelude, shadows the whole work, returning pointedly at the very end - Barbieri leaves us in no doubt which way the political wind is blowing.
If it lacks the focus of his later comic masterpiece El barberillo de Lavapiés, Pan y toros has greater scope, confidently treading the tightrope between comedy and political drama, bursting at the seams with musical and theatrical energy. Still, it is easy to see why revivals have been comparatively rare. With its large orchestra, double choruses, dance troupe, and no less than 18 significant roles for singer-actors, Pan y toros would be hugely demanding on the resources of any opera company, hardly less so for the specialised resources of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, where it was premiered nearly 140 years ago. This double-cast revival was a rare chance to catch the work, and the Teatro did it proud.
Emili Ametller's luscious Goya-tapestry designs effectively illustrated the tangled threads of the political drama without becoming tiresomely symbolic. Singers peeked through skeins of threads, sneaked through hidden tapestry doors; at one point the aristocratic coterie found themselves literally caught in a net of threads. María Araujo's costumes followed the theme, loosely inspired by Goya's portraits of many of the major characters - such as three popular bullfighters - and making for a rich riot of harmonious colour. Joan Lluís Bozzo's direction, turning on a sixpence between romantic high drama, political invective and satirical comedy, helped his cast catch the quicksilver tone of the work. If Bozzo failed to take full advantage of the split-level opportunities generated by designer and composer to differentiate between the French and Spanish parties, and muffed the crucial killing at the end of the central act, the outer acts at least were pointed with consistent clarity and wit.
Even the romantic lovers Captain Peñaranda (Enrique Baquerizo) and the Princess of Luzán (Marina Rodríguez-Cusí) are comedy figures to some extent. Baquerizo's imposing presence and easy, even casual style, got the balance right; though his highly individual vocal grain was hardly exploited by a role too high-lying to show him to best advantage. Rodríguez-Cusí's warm but insecure mezzo seemed overparted and underconfident, especially in the lovely, long-lined romanza "Esta santo escapulario". She was very much the vocal loser in that coloratura battle with the scheming, plotting and highly delightful Doña Pepita, sung with steely accuracy and thrilling force by Mariola Cantarero, a prize-winning coloratura protégé of Plácido Domingo and very much the vocal and dramatic star of the show.
Perhaps the key role is the turncoat Abbot Ciruele, Mozart's wily and mischievous Don Basilio with a political heart in the right place. Emilio Sanchez sang securely without ever suggesting the relish which activates the character. In turning the well-known song "La grave contradanza" which opens the second act into a sneering commentary, he missed the amoral hedonism which Picón and Barbieri were surely out to portray. Most of the rest of the principals were better than merely good, with Miguel Sola's avuncular Goya and Marco Moncloa's elegantly sung Pepe-Hillo - a bullfighter fated to die famously in the ring, recorded even more famously by the painter - outstanding.
The musical side had been prepared by Catalan Josep Pons, well-known for his fresh CD recreations for Harmonia Mundi of a range of theatre works from Albéniz and Falla to Stravinsky. This particular performance was in the safe hands of his deputy Lorenzo Ramos, who had orchestra and chorus at the top of their form, ensuring Barbieri's virile rhythms and magnificent ensembles came across with maximum impact. Altogether the high standards of this fascinating revival augur well for the artistic future of the Teatro de la Zarzuela.
© Christopher Webber 2001