Tomás Bretón / Ricardo de la
There are two opposed ways to successfully stage theatrical classics. The "essentialist" method chooses radical presentation to avoid the conventional; whilst the "existentialist" alternative confidently puts its money on one or more partial viewpoints, of more or less importance - though still characteristic of the work in question. Though making for a staging much less universal, this can be specially effective if the focus is firmly controlled. Experienced cinema and theatre director Sergio Renán chooses this existential route, in a staging which overwhelmingly emphasises the visual "meta-history" of the classic in question. About forty years after the premiere of La verbena de la Paloma (1894) a well-known cinematographer immortalized Bretón's work in a film of the same title, which marks a milestone in zarzuela adaptations for the medium. Benito Perojo's work is celebrated in Sergio Renán's staging, which harmoniously sets the zarzuela at the time of the film's opening (1935), alludes to its making, and adds extra dialogue to point up contemporary cinema references.
We find ourselves in the legendary Teatro Apolo, though purely speaking this is an impossibility since it succumbed to capitalist greed in 1929, six years before Perojo's gem was first seen. In order to quarry this secondary "metahistory" associated with La verbena... - its epochal status at the Apolo - two spoken interludes are introduced, and Ricardo de la Vega's sainete is graced with a Prologue. The audience is presented with constant reminders of this famous theatre so firmly associated with the Calle Alcalá. On top of these references to cinema and the Apolo, the projection of two documentary films between the Scenes presents a visual tour of Madrid in the first third of the 20th century. It must be conceded that the evocation of the Apolo does not only serve to put La verbena... in context. For unconditional lovers of the género chico it brings a tear to the eye, making us feel for a moment that our "Cathedral" still lives. The atmosphere is evoked even outside the doors of the theatre, by flower girls, libretto hawkers and other urban characters; and by an illuminated sign advertising the piece over the entrance in Calle Jovellanos - replicating that which lit the Apolo in its last years. Once inside the auditorium we're surprised by a gorgeous advertising drop-curtain billboard, reproducing one which would have been seen from around 1908 in the proscenium of the beloved Apolo before the show began.
Thus Renán has chosen to make a film and help us forget that we are in a theatre. What we are given is a brilliant spectacle in which the magic always arises from the staging, especially its attractive design, but which does not quite comprehend the essence of the narrative. Neither the dramaturgy nor the music quite comes up to the impressive visual apparatus - choreography, sets, lighting and costume - which unfolds before us. Attention to script is secondary, thus emphasising different levels of accomplishment between the various actor-singers, not only in dialogue scenes but also in musical numbers. The actors are not well directed, and the ever-loved story does not hand together as it should.
As for the performances, discretion - in some cases positively amounting to greyness - is the dominant tone. The exception is Raquel Pierotti, who recorded Señá Rita a decade ago. She sings the role with enormous force, winning great plaudits at the performances I saw. If her vocal faculties are no longer what they were, her domination of the stage compensates. José Manuel Cifuentes' Don Hilarión - much younger than designated by the writer, but thankfully released thereby from stereotypical senile capers - is much better acted than sung, which is a shame in such a role. The sentimental lovers range from the utterly anodyne (the Susana of Sandra Ferrández) to an interesting combination of good scenic presence and neatly sung line (Manel Esteve's Julián.) It's a pity that the prevailing naturalism leads to the choice of a flamenco and not an opera-trained voice as the Cantaora (Flamenco Singer,) since the amplification of the voice and even more crucially a lack of vocal virtuosity prevents the magnificent Soleá from making its point in the scene at the Café Melilla. The chorus and orchestra are coldly clinical rather than exhibiting their customary brilliance, given the musical jewels they hold in their hands; for once Miguel Roa's baton is slack, lending insecurity to the orchestra where it needs lucidity and expressive force.
The first Scene opens on an astonishingly realistic recreation of the streets of Madrid, of sculpted beauty, that stays with us throughout the staging; of especial potency is the tall silhouette of the basilica of San Francisco el Grande which serves as a backdrop during the first part of the scene. But no sooner have we begun when the dúo between Don Hilarión and Don Sebastián is rudely interrupted by a dialogue between the chemist and Inocencio Catalina, a cinephile character created for the occasion who also appears in the new Prologue and interludes between scenes, breaking rudely here into the magic of the comedic musical dialogue. The most successful number in the scene is Don Hilarión's coplas: with each reference to women the beautiful night sky of Madrid is filled with brilliant stars of Hollywood, although in the end all are eclipsed by that pair of sexy Madrid girls, "La Casta" and "La Susana."
In Scene 2 the film camera can take the most natural place. When the drop curtain rises we see the onstage projection of a supposed movie production called The Millionaire and the Flamenco Singer, in the course of which the renowned soleá "En Chiclana me crié..." begins. At this moment the cinema screen (that in the course of its make-believe "30's musical comedy" has been projecting images of the artists we see on stage) becomes transparent, allowing us to glimpse the Cantaora from the film inside the Café Melilla, just as the libretto dictates. The beauty of the filmed sequences and the aesthetic of fusing projected images and reality, added to the precise execution of the staging, produce a remarkable effect - one where the artistic and technical teams are perfectly in tandem - which makes this moment the most brilliant and exciting of the evening. After a more conventional nocturno and scene between the chulapas and Don Hilarión, the choreography of the mazurca makes the obligatory (but felicitous) concession to the world of American musical comedy movie. The remainder of the scene, where the crisis of the sainete's action is developed in the most complex musical number of the score (dúo y escena, quinteto and habanera concertante,) is one part most obviously suffering the consequences of the stage director's lack of interest in the narrative to which he is bound.
The already problematic third Scene is further mutilated by its dialogue being reduced to a minimum. Despite this, effective lighting and stage pictures (with a merry-go-round in the middle) do much to provide a suitable frame for the conclusion of the work, as well as a magnificent finishing touch to an original staging which - potent though its visual power has been - will only have a future if its dramaturgical failings are addressed.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2005