During the 1870s there was a tremendous vogue for spectacular musical productions with large casts, exotic effects and plentiful changes of scenery. London had such entertainments at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, while New York enjoyed the successors to The Black Crook. Above all there were the féeries at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris, where Jules Vernes novels were a significant factor in shaping public tastes, as well as providing material for Offenbachs Le Voyage dans la Lune and Le Docteur Ox.
Yet even in the 1870s, when labour was cheap and film, radio and television non-existent, the combined talents of Offenbach and Verne could not prevent the Gaîté "going bust". So what chance of these works being staged in anything approaching their original form today? Well, none in Britain certainly, and not much elsewhere. Perhaps only in Spain does classic popular musical theatre retain a sufficient hold to justifying spending a few million euros of public money on reviving such works.
During the 1870s Madrid was as ready as ever to adapt French material and ideas into a specifically Spanish form. Thus Miguel Ramos Carrión produced Los Sobrinos del Capitán Grant (1877), a spectacular musical travelogue based on Vernes Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant. The work has kept a toehold in the Spanish repertory, especially as family entertainment for the festive season, making it an ideal choice for a major new production at the Teatro de la Zarzuela from 20 December 2001 to 19 February 2002.
It would be too much to expect things quite on the scale of 1877, of course. Yet, even after losing a train scene in the Australian desert, we were still left with seventeen of the original eighteen scenes. These take us from a Madrid tenement, via ocean-going vessel to Chile, whence up into the Andean peaks, down to an Argentinian fortress, across the ocean again to an Australian gold prospectors cabin, down to the bottom of the ocean, and inside a New Zealand volcano. In encompassing all this, designer Jon Berrondo achieved a particular miracle with one compound set that served as the SS Scotland before opening out into a Chilean hacienda and later as a Maori temple. The special effects were no less fascinating, including an ingeniously staged rescue of Doctor Mirabel from the clutches of a condor, and miniature animated figures diving to the wreck of the SS Scotland. There, in the underwater ballet, we enjoyed a fascinating collection of marine life, including the giant octopus that seized the shows villain, Jaime.
Apart from Jaime, whose lyrical aria was despatched with gusto by Lorenzo Moncloa, the principal characters are the party of six who voyage from Madrid to South America and the Antipodes. Two of them have no solo singing at all, being acting roles that were effectively played by Fernando Conde (Doctor Mirabel) and Richard Collins-Moore the latter British born and offering an authentic Scottish accent as Sir Clyron. In the four sung roles, mezzo-soprano Milagros Martín (as Soledad), soprano María Rey-Joly (as Miss Ketty) and Xavi Mira (as Escolástico) did what little they were offered to excellent effect. The one significant disappointment came from the casting of Mochila, chief instigator of the trip, with an actor, Millán Salcedo. He simply could not produce the fire-breathing bufo singing the music demands. At least the restriction of his sung role to the first scene meant we could thereafter enjoy his acting ability.
We are fortunate in having the Alhambra recording of the score, conducted by Benito Lauret, to display the delights of Caballeros score. These range from operatic ensemble in the Madrid tenement scene, through a Chilean samba, to the ravishingly scored underwater ballet waltz, and a wild chorus of cannibals. Delight at hearing the music 'live' was tinged with disappointment at the amount of extra music missing from the Alhambra disc. The absence of the Gauchos' Pasodoble "¡Viva el general Archiparraguirrigerriberrigorrigurrichea!" is perhaps especially to be regretted. Altogether the Teatro de la Zarzuela chorus had a field day, with a succession of extravagant costumes and rousing vocal contributions. The large cast also included many delightfully Monty Pythonesque supporting characters, apt to pop up all over the auditorium. With an extended stage being used - not least for the "bilingual" seduction duet for Soledad and Miss Ketty - conductor Miguel Roa demonstrated that 360° vision could be added to his musical talents.
There is nothing new in describing zarzuela as unique; but the evening provided a theatrical experience as enjoyably rich and varied as anything in over fifty years of theatregoing.
© Andrew Lamb 2002