Tribute to the Apolo
Spectacular recreation of Madrid's fin-de-siecle theatrical world is the keynote of this program of two sainetes, by the Quintero brothers with music by José Serrano, under the direction of Francisco Nieva. The revival is done with a fidelity that shows infinite admiration and respect for a passionate theatre history full of fine artistic achievements. Im speaking about the great tradition of teatro por horas ("theatre by the hour",) that is to say, of the celebrated género chico, one of the most important Spanish contributions to world theatre. This theatrical phenomenon found music its principal support, making zarzuelas the hugest triumphs of the teatro chico. In fact analyzing the phenomenon from an exclusively musical perspective, we can say without fear of hyperbole that with the exception of the pop music of the 20th century, the composers of género chico are the most applauded Spanish musicians in history, those who found the highest degree of complicity with their public.
The two works reunited for the occasion were written in the first decade of the 20th century, anachronistic examples of the género chico sainete. The teatro por horas, that had reached its apogee between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, entered the new century in a definite state of formulaic exhaustion. At that time the sainete - madrileño or as in this case Andalusian - did not enjoy great standing. But the Quintero brothers mastered their craft perfectly and found in José Serrano the ideal partner who knew how to enrich their work with his catchy, picture-postcard andalucismo, and authentic casticismo ("purity".)
The choice of this pair of sainetes is vindicated by the stylistic and spiritual union which yokes them, and even more so by the contrasts that can be observed between them; all this lends to the staging the necessary coherence, as well as the desired variety.
La mala sombra ("The Bad Influence" 1906) is a wonderful exercise in virtuoso dialogue. A minimal plot - Baldomero's bad business luck - gives sufficient excuse to develop an egregious catalogue of comic situations of popular, urban flavour, musically illustrated by Serrano's talented score. On the other hand El mal de amores ("Love's Sickness" 1905) is more elaborate. A love-struck girl flees her home to avoid an arranged marriage; she fetches up in an inn where she has been with her fiancé and where her would-be husband comes searching for her. The plot's tangled web allows for a happy end. Tragedy raises its head in the form of a gypsy girl apprehended by the Guardia Civil for having stabbed her man; but the intensity of the horror is relieved when it emerges that the wounds inflicted by the young girl on her lover do not prove fatal. Here the story is soaked in a brooding romanticism that fertilises the music, giving the score great unity. Again dialogue and comedy hold the attention, first through well-crafted writing and second, by a finely-judged and elegant sense of proportion.
Francisco Nieva is a great connoisseur and admirer of the theatrical style that was developed in emblematic theatres such as the Variedades, Eslava, Lara and even the Zarzuela, but above all the Apolo; and he proves able to shape the staging of La mala sombra and El mal de amores in accordance with the distinctive formal aspects of musical theatre coined by these theatres. Nieva carries through his approach to the teatro por horas in two areas of his responsibility: the dramaturgical and the artistic.
The género chico was a stage for actors - grand actors. Great success was down above all to the comedians. The género chico actor developed as a particular theatrical specialisation, and - even more specialised - comes the actor-singer of zarzuela chica. Looking back at the genre from the present time demands maximum care in casting, something which Nieva franks through splendid direction of his actors. But the director also introduces touches foreign to the traditional interpretation of sainete, through exaggerated caricature of some roles; or by breaking the pace of the work at odd moments with slow motion scenes accompanied by brutal orchestral sound and varied lighting.
The actors, actor-singers and singers achieve a uniformly high interpretative level. In La mala sombra I'd highlight from amongst the singers Milagros Martín (Pepa la Garbosa), Enrique Ruiz del Portal (Angelillo) and Pilar Jurado (Leonor) superb on stage and in song. Of the full acting company completing the cast I should mention the Baldomero of Juan Meseguer and Emilio Gavira's Curro Meloja. Coming to El mal de amores I'll need to catalogue the complete vocal forces: Mar Abascal (Carola), Enrique Baquerizo (Rafael), Pilar Jurado (Mariquilla), Javier Alonso (Antoñillo) and Amanda Serra (La Amapola); of the actors José Lifante as Don Lope and Francisco Maestre as Señor Cristóbal produce authentic comedy creations. All of them act in every way like mobile chess pieces intelligently marshalled by Francisco Nieva to tell us these two beautifully turned stories.
Coming to the scenic aspects, the importance in zarzuela chica of the settings, and the care put into the many material details of the staging such as properties, costumes and lighting approaches - no doubt without any thought of emulation - the admirable standards of opera.
The stage sets have been constructed applying new technologies that achieve a similar final effect to the painted drop curtains of the 19th century. So, from Nieva's original sketches, the painter José Pedreira has elaborated versions much more finished, blown up to give the effect of being painted on a huge scale. These aesthetically amazing drop curtains illustrate reality in tiny detail, whilst simultaneously revealing their artificial aspect, as we try to imagine a way of folding the pleats to produce such half-drawn drapes. A false proscenium painted with more curtains and practicable doors is the physical frame common to both works; besides creating a bond between the two parts, it works as a permanent invitation to immerse ourselves in a wonderful world of realistic theatrical fiction.
The only decor for La mala sombra - Baldomero's drinks and boot-black stall - beyond showing to us some luxuriant detail indicating a modest but dignified establishment, displays in collage several stereotypical images of turn-of-the-century Spain, from Ramón Casas' famous advertisement poster for the spirit Anís del mono, to a specimen of "fan language" illustrating a section of seats at the bullring, reflecting perhaps the real people on stage in the eternal game between reality and fiction. The end of "the bad influence" on the establishment of Baldomero comes when the clouds over rainy Seville disperse, at which point a backdrop is revealed of the evocative urban landscape which has been partially visible throughout the work.
For its part the single act of El mal de amores is heralded during the musical introduction by another landscape backdrop, in this case appropriately rural. But whilst La mala sombra's directly depicts a realistic landscape in the Seville School manner, this time a surrealist tint invades the apparent trustworthy image. Once the action begins, the setting the Inn of "the well of love's sickness". Again the visual focus of the setting is the rear stage, suggesting the shady interior of the inn with all the usual characteristic details. The ultimate triumph of love reveals a new vista, bare although dominated by the aesthetic of Western films; a detail of the staging anticipated this cinematographic allusion - the entry of Don Ramón and Felipe, the heroine's pursuers, accompanied by a gust of wind as if they were a pair of outlaws.
The costumes fully embody the range of traditional and urban types depicted; but some characters (the three one-eyed rogues in La mala sombra, Don Ramon and Felipe in El mal de amores) are again characterized satirically with exaggerated costumes to suggest their sinister quality. The lighting attempts to recreate 19th century methods: follow spots on the actors leave the rest of the stage in semi-darkness. In El mal de amores, the slow motion moments previously described are highlit by a strobe effect; in La mala sombra something similar is done for Taburete's fight with Potito.
Leaving the production, what of the musical side? The orchestra is at its best when the lyricism of El mal de amores comes to the fore. During the comedy songs in both works the singers have an effective partner in the pit, although sometimes the orchestra swallows them; the diction problems of some soloists are in danger of jeopardizing the stage effectiveness of these numbers, so important in zarzuela chica. In any case Miguel Roa, who has revised both scores and made the critical edition to be published by ICCMU, loves this music and makes that tell.
This production vindicates the idea that a very orthodox reading can work; though it does not have to be the only option for staging género chico works in ways which do justice to their peculiarities, dramaturgical and musical. Seeing this centenary revival one can appreciate to a great extent the loss of social prestige of the género chico and its artistic under-appreciation, that has resulted from the countless bad productions to which it has been subjected, something specially evident after witnessing such a brilliant staging as this.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2004
Cast, La mala sombra:
Pepa la garbosa - Milagros Martín; Leonor - Pilar Jurado; La sorda -
Milagros Ponti; Baldomero - Juan Meseguer; Angelillo - Enrique Ruiz del Portal;
Taburete: José Carlos Gómez; Peregrín - Sergio de Frutos;
Juan de Dios - Paco Torres; Badana - Juan Matute; Curro Meloja - Emilio Gavira;
Potito - Raúl Talavera; Un forastero - Juanma Navas; Manolo - Carolo
Ruiz; Luis - Héctor Gómez Lazcano; Chquillos - Antonio Palomo,
José Palomo, Adrián Portugal.