Albéniz &

Teatro de
la Zarzuela

(Madrid, 6 April 2003)

Isaac Albeniz
San Antonio de la Florida (1858)

San Antonio de la Florida • Goyescas

A special excitement, a mixture of emotion restrained by curiosity, coursed through me as I listened to the lovely, delicate measures composed by Isaac Albéniz for a genre in which history has not reserved him a major place. But precisely because it was attempted by a musician distant from the usual milieu of zarzuela, whilst fully involved in the musical avant-garde of his era, his approach to the genre - given a lavish debut in the Teatro Apolo, its most sacred shrine - has an intrinsic interest, insofar as the composer adopts a new manner of creating zarzuela.

This new manner, which I would describe as composing with a wider European perspective something still substantially Spanish, did not strike a chord between its creators and their public; the luckless fate of this work is partly down to the oblivion which swiftly descended upon it - but only partly, since history offers many instances of great triumphs similarly forgotten today. To hear San Antonio de la Florida faces us with the strange dichotomy of recognizing something formally bound to Hispanic music theatre, through its plot and above all its familiar musical numbers - dúos, romanzas, and the rest (of dimensions maybe more associated with zarzuela grande than género chico, but still typical of zarzuela) - yoked to a much more elaborate musical language, in some ways more "tough" to comprehend and less theatrical. In short, his work does not "sound" like zarzuela, and this is surely down to the strongly individual personality of Albéniz's music.

Its companion Goyescas is an incredible three-dimensional refashioning of Enrique Granados's magical Suite for Piano. This forms part of that small group of "undisputed" masterworks of Hispanic music; though I hope that in the near future, through the invaluable researches being carried out by the Instituto Complutense de Ciencias Musicales, this group could be significantly enlarged. The musical quality of this minimally theatrical work gives it an excellent claim on the attention of music lovers as opposed to opera buffs.

Director José Carlos Plaza was in my judgement the great hero of the evening. In San Antonio ... he created a spectacle of notable visual beauty; in Goyescas he was faced with something still more difficult - the need to allow the work's prime glory, its music, to flow without obstacles, distractions, alterations or betrayal of the opera's spirit. Through this the shaping of the action under the baton of José Ramón Encinar (who in San Antonio ..., maybe due to the greater unfamiliarity of the work, had not controlled events so convincingly) was evoked through genuine intensification of its poetic vein. What is more extraordinary, Encinar also brought out the zarzuelistic aspects of Granados's score. This is a work whose spirit, as I understand it, is both intimate and introspective, evocative of concepts rather than images, of distinct chamber-music quality, far removed from the concept of casticismo. With this natural richness, thanks to Encinar's intelligent reading, we also had an admirable madrileño colouring, full of joy and energy; of earthy, human warmth; a musical orgy almost, to which practically nothing could have been added. Plaza's admirable clarity of staging did not eclipse or sweep away the conductor's work.

In Goyescas there was an agreeable diaphanous quality to the acting space, set off by the obligatory, scenic evocations of his paintings (that remained almost exclusively in the background); a few stage movements full of musical sensitivity; a sensuous colour; bright costuming; all of which acted as a base for the musical monument that was raised. The only element which detracted from the music's primacy was the "ethnic" choreography of the first Intermedio and second scene.

In San Antonio ... however, the pictorial quality (forced upon the work in a way by pairing it with Goyescas) had greater point in that, brilliant though it was, it did not detract from the novelty of the music. An atmosphere defined by Goya's paintings reached its height in the first and last scenes of the zarzuela, through a reconstruction of his dome frescoes in Madrid's San Antonio de la Florida church which amazed by its uncannily close imitation (rail included!) of that 18th c. mural masterwork. Costuming, lighting, settings - for the greater part projected images - were extraordinarily effective in maintaining the general sense of the staging as a "painted tapestry".

The performers were uniformly good. Some exceptional ones deserve to be singled out. In the Albéniz, Gustavo Peña (Gabriel) shone vocally, and Luis Álvarez and Raquel Pierotti (Don Lesmes and Doña Ascensión respectively) succeeded in theatrically challenging character roles. In Goyescas Eduardo Santamaría, with his most beautiful voice - and in the most grateful role - made Fernando genteel and vigorous, though he encompassed subtlety where required. Cecilia Díaz as Pepa sang with commitment, edge, and appropriate showiness. Carmen Serrano, Enrique Baquerizo and Raquel Pierotti, together with the chorus, made up the other pieces in Granados's "puzzle" and acquitted themselves with honour albeit less notably; had they not been so good the total impact would have been diminished, which it was not.

El Pelele (Goya)
El Pelele (Goya)
A scene from

The chorus, major protagonist in both works, had moments of great sublimity in San Antonio ..., for example in No.7 of the score, unaccountably mutilated in this modern premiere; and they performed with genuine heroism in Goyescas. The orchestra played with exquisite sensitivity in San Antonio ...; and in Goyescas, with a strength rarely approached in the recent history of this theatre. Why is it that players who can approach these scores with such enthusiasm seem so demotivated as soon as they tackle the more usual fare at the Teatro de la Zarzuela?

In sum, a notably outstanding spectacle; only in Madrid can something like this be attempted, and only in a theatre like La Zarzuela could it shine so brightly. Long may such fine collaborative work between different elements of the lyric theatre grace successive seasons at the "hub" on Calle Jovellanos. I would only ask that in addition to "quality" there is "quantity".

I want to end my critical ramblings with an anecdote maybe not without value in a time such as this, marked by violent acts. I refer to the inclusion by the company of an indictment against war, in the form of an improvised dialogue in Latin macaronics by two false monks in the 2nd Scene of San Antonio ... Enrique, disguised in the habit of a Friar, exclaims: "Guerra tremenda injustitia est, Pax in Mapa Mundi". Amen to that!

© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2003

Casts: San Antonio de la Florida. Irene: Raquel Lojendio; Doña Ascensión: Raquel Pierotti; Rosa: María José Suarez; Don Lesmes: Luis Álvarez; Enrique: Joan Cabero; Gabriel: Gustavo Peña. Goyescas. Rosario: Carmen Serrano; Pepa: Cecilia Díaz; Fernando: Eduardo Santamaría; Paquiro: Enrique Baquerizo; Offstage Voice (Fandango): Raquel Pierotti
Dancers & Chorus of Teatro de la Zarzuela; Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Conductor: José Ramón Encinar
Design: Francisco Leal & Enrique Marty; Costumes: Pedro Moreno; Choreography: Goyo Montero; Lighting: Francisco Leal; Director: José Carlos Plaza

(Goyescas was a 2001 production from the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Italy)

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