Golden Amadeo –
Sensibly, the creators of La villana (1927) kept Lope de Vega’s sense of old romance at the heart of their zarzuela version of his golden-age tragicomedy Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña. In those years the zarzuela grande was being religiously proclaimed the expression par excellence of National Lyric Theatre: this was before the collapse of the lyric theatre genre in face of the irresistible rise of the competition – cinema, sport and the whole mass culture alternative. Tradition was being defended by the creative efforts of a heroic handful of artists, bankrolled by subsidies from the ever-diminishing state treasury. In this case they produced one of the great milestones in the history of Teatro de la Zarzuela, just one year after the premiere of Jesús Guridi’s El caserío on the same stage.
It is true that some new situations and versification introduced by the best team of 20th century librettists, Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernández-Shaw, can hardly stand comparison with the animated lines of that ‘Phoenix of Wit’ from the Spanish Golden Age. What is more (as Fernando Doménech Rio points out in his programme notes), their lamentable recourse to the stalest anti-Semitic topics through the introduction of David – not present in the original – adds a dose of outdated embarrassment to the plot.
For this reason the removal of much of the spoken dialogue, already proportionally short, may in this case be justifiable. Moreover, our ears can be thankful for the timely inclusion in Teatro de la Zarzuela’s new production of some fragments of Lope’s original. This creates the suggestion of a distancing effect, by redefining the character of Olmedo as a blind ballad singer who, accompanied by his guide, narrates the drama in full – curiously reminiscent of La del soto del parral, premiered that same month of October 1927, and even of the later Luisa Fernanda (1932).
On the other hand, both reason and the senses are violated by an arbitrary tampering with and reorganization of the theatrical rhythm of the work, which was precisely Romero and Fernández-Shaw’s most valuable contribution to the libretto’s success. In fact it would be difficult to imagine a finale more delicate than Don Fadrique’s Serenade that crowns the first act, but it is diluted here by a run-on into the first scene of act two. Conversely, illogically relocating the duet for Peribáñez and David in a foreign setting is not, of course, the best remedy against the libretto’s thorny racism, although it may be the easiest – quite apart from the fact that an abrupt and awkward drop-curtain threatens to interrupt the protagonist’s climactic phrase later in the number.
The various musical cuts are also debatable. Some of them are reasonable curtailments of repetitions, recaps or secondary passages. The suppression of short songs and sections in popular style, however, demonstrates that unwillingness to mix comic and tragic masks common to many current directors. Worse still, it seemed to me that the omission of two beautiful orchestral interludes can only be explained by the management’s desire to have done with the show at a prudently early hour. It most certainly does not honour the self-proclaimed ‘artistic purity’ of the house.
In short, one assumes that in this age of post-truth, Coca-Cola Zero and 140 characters per tweet, paying attention to the classics for longer than a League Cup Final seems like an unheard-of and even peculiar audacity. The problem is that the energetic and sprawling camel of Hispanic theatre will never pass through the eye of the Aristotelian needle without losing hump, skin and even its very life-blood in the process, no matter how much ‘imaginative effort’ our programmers waste on the attempt.
“Brown coated” (as Casilda sings to her beloved) it may be, yet this incomplete but important historical revival is in essence well-judged and pleasing to behold; sets are austere and evocative, with nuanced highlights; the wardrobe is sober, with ambiguous archaism; scenic movement is very contained, except for one traditionally choreographed jota. This dignified framework leaves enough space for the drama – and even more importantly, Amadeo Vives’s beautiful score – to go their own way and impose their undeniable quality. In truth we can enjoy here one of the composer’s most mature creations, which fully confirms him as one of Spanish lyric theatre’s finest masters. When so many of his stage works remain in oblivion it can’t be said that this is his best work, but everything in it from start to finish is “beautiful, noble and graceful,” as one reviewer put it after La villana’s first performance.
Vives, already acclaimed, deployed here his elegant virtuosity with genuine theatrical instinct, regardless of fashion and without worrying excessively about charming the public or shocking the pedants. There are no ‘big numbers’ here, clever effects, tricks or gimmicks. Simply put, the composer adapts himself to the setting and the action without losing his own voice, sublimating ancient local folklore with absolute naturalness – Basque zortziko included – and exquisitely-fashioned language. His attachment to the spirit of bel canto and a certain sense of intimacy, even in the most epic scenes, distinguishes him from the contemporary verismo school, bringing him closer to a Massenet-style drama lyrique, yet still displaying a very personal colour and vitality.
And it is here, in the very delicacy and melodiousness demanded by the score, that the production hits its biggest obstacle. The whole gallery of comic and secondary characters fulfil their mission cleanly – led by the effectively robust Rubén Amoretti in the double role of David and King of Castile, and the lyrical singing of Javier Tomé as Olmedo. But the three protagonists need more than big voices, acting ability, stage presence and interpretive boldness. Of course La Villana is not (happily) a second Trovatore, but in its own way it still requires “the best singers in the world” in the leading roles. To put it succinctly, none of them always maintained the excellence that their vocal lines demand, nor the passion that their amorous triangle implies. These failings were most evident in the case of Casilda, rich in timbre but intemperate in her higher register and somewhat distanced as a performer. Ángel Ódena’s Peribáñez was much better balanced, powerful even in his few spoken scenes. As for the tenor Jorge de León, he gave us a ringing but sometimes forced Don Fadrique. I regret not having had the chance to hear the production’s second cast, sensing that they wouldn’t have much to envy about this ‘first cast’.
Fortunately, the Chorus had generous occasion to show off its various vocal types, revealing itself once again as the company’s firmest asset. The chance of pulsating to their sonic power in the immense concertante scene of the second act justified the revival by itself, quite as much or more than the pleasure provided by the wonderful duets and solos. Of course, none of this could be sustained without the reliable beat of a baton as theatrically seasoned as that of Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez. In his hands the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid effectively fulfilled its heavy task, despite some excessive volume.
In sum, this production can be viewed as a timely tribute to that great theatrical musician Amadeo Vives – without doubt, the evening’s great victor. It also works as a ‘historical reparation’ even though honouring and doing justice to true artists is not a very usual exercise in Spain. That in the final, grand procession of this Villana there is no actual procession; and that the Castilian banners of King Enrique III turn out to be strange Quechuan flags in black and white, can anecdotally be considered ‘alternative facts’, very much in accordance with the postmodern idiosyncrasies of our time. Maybe after all that’s what ‘removing dandruff’ from the genre consists of. With or without that, we hope to sip more often from such golden dishes as this. By Amadeo, or Amadeu, or Amadeus.
© Mario Lerena, Christopher Webber (trans.)