Jugar con fuego

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated September 11th 2021

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Jugar con fuego
by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri
libretto by Ventura de la Vega

® recommended recording

The night of 6th October 1851 at the Teatro del Circo in Madrid was a watershed in the development of zarzuela. Jugar on Fuego wasn't quite Barbieri's first zarzuela, but its three-act form and substantial content were immediately recognised to be a significant step forward towards the creation of a truly national art form. Objectively, Jugar con Fuego was a forced marriage of French dramaturgy to Italian music, yet for the first time a piece in the vernacular proved it could hold the stage as well as any imported opera, and from then on until the unquestionably Spanish achievements of El barberillo de Lavapiés Barbieri was to be hailed as the torchbearer for the renascent music of his country.

Ventura de la Vega was a crucial figure in this revival. A habitual borrower from French models, he based his plot and characters very squarely on Madame d'Egmont ou Sont-elles deux? (1833) by Jacques-François Ancelot and Alexis Decomberousse. The result may be coarser, more trivial and less plausible than the French comédie, but his supple verse and fluid stage sense provided Barbieri with some excellent opportunities for drama para música which the composer grasped with both hands.

Ventura de la Vega
Ventura de la Vega

Anybody looking for hints of a Spanish style in the score of Jugar con Fuego will be largely disappointed. The music is pretty purely Rossinian in melodic cut and orchestral texture. It is however energetic, brilliant and tuneful throughout, and Barbieri's growing stage sense is readily apparent in the swift-moving and neatly proportioned finales to the first two acts, as well as the marvellously effective closing scene (with its burlesque shades of The Rake's Progress!) Despite the success of his ensembles and choruses, Barbieri's most distinctive musical number is the Duchess's romanza "Un tiempo fue", a true avatar of things to come with its pronounced tendency towards the melancholy minor, and its lilting bolero rhythms.

Act 1 - the Manzanares river in Madrid, sometime in the mid-18th century. It is a summer night, on the Festival of San Juan. Well-bred ladies and gentlemen mingle with the crowd on the wooded banks of the river (Coro: "La noche ha llegado"). The young, widowed Duchess of Medina is amongst them, veiled and disguised as a chambermaid to meet with a young admirer. She is harassed by the Marquis of Caravaca, a foolish, bullying braggart who believes that every woman he meets has only to set eyes on his fashionable clothes and ample figure to fall in love with him. He has seen through the Duchess's disguise, and smugly offers his amorous services, a suggestion which she laughingly rejects. Her father the elderly Duke of Alberquerque appears, enabling her to melt back into the crowd, and leaving the Marquis to boast mendaciously about his new conquest (Aria y escena: "Si te place de este bosque").

Two impoverished hidalgos, Félix and his cousin Antonio, greet the aristocrats. Félix is here for a nocturnal tryst with an unknown veiled beauty who calls herself Leonor. The Duke is cynical, the Marquis starts to put two and two together - but Félix is clearly madly in love (Romanza: "La vi por vez primera"). The Duke promises to do his best to seek preferment for the young men, and leaves with the Marquis. "Leonor" appears, and Antonio tactfully withdraws. Félix feels he is too poor to aspire to her hand, but she explains that she is only a poor chambermaid to the Duchess of Medina. Nonetheless, she refuses to permit him too many familiarities (Dúo: "Hay un palacio junto al prado").

When the Marquis blunders into view, Félix sneaks away to order a carriage for his Leonor. She runs straight into her father, and is forced to masquerade as a Court Lady to obtain his dubious "protection". When the Marquis and some courtiers arrive by torchlight to reveal the veiled lady's identity, the Duke defends her at sword point, but before he can claim his reward Félix has spirited her away, leaving the courtiers to mock the pair of disappointed and lecherous aristocrats (Final: "Pues quiere la fortuna").

Act 2 - A salon in the Royal Palace of Buen Retiro. Over an orchestral Introducción the Duchess discusses her narrow escape with her friend the Countess. The courtiers mock the ludicrous Marquis, who responds with pointed threats to the Duchess (Coro y escena: "Vedle allí qué pensativo"). The Countess warns her friend how dangerous an enemy the Marquis may prove. Though she sympathises with the Duchess's feeling for Félix, she warns her that their difference in rank will surely doom their love.

Félix and Antonio arrive to attend upon the Duke. The Marquis slyly asks Félix how his amorous affairs are progressing, and is gratified when the young man is rendered virtually speechless by seeing that the Duchess of Medina is one and the same with his adored Leonor. The Marquis presents the couple to one another and maliciously enjoys their mutual discomfiture. When questioned by her father, the Duchess denies she knows the young man, who confusedly apologises for his mistake. However, left alone with the Marquis, he confides his conviction that the Duchess has played him a cruel trick, and shows his presumed friend a letter she has written to him. The Marqués confirms it is the Duchess's hand, and promises to confront her with it, if Félix agrees to watch silently from the gallery above.

The Duchess enters, and is promptly blackmailed by the Marquis. Unless she agrees to marry him, he will reveal all to her father. Once he shows her the letter, she has no alternative but to agree, to save both her own reputation and her beloved Félix. Yet though she falls into his arms, she vows to use her feminine wiles to trick this odious enemy (Dúo: "Por temor de otra imprudencia"). Félix has seen everything, and utters a cry of despair from the gallery (Final: "¡Oh, maldad!"). He confronts the Duchess with her apparent treachery, and despite her pleas calls in her father and the whole court before denouncing her. The Duke decides the only way to save his daughter's reputation is to lock the distraught young man up as a lunatic - a course to which the heartbroken Félix readily agrees ("¡Yo inocente en paz vivía!"). The Duchess herself has no option but to go along with her father's decision, and the Act ends as the gloating Marqués sees his rival dragged away to the madhouse amidst general excitement.

Act 3 - The central courtyard of the madhouse. The action is preceded by a short Introducción, partly based on material from the Duchess's later romanza. Antonio has come to visit his cousin, but whilst he is waiting in the courtyard the lunatics set on him, until he is finally rescued by the Keeper (Solos y coro: "¡Suelta, pícaro sastre!") When Félix emerges, Antonio tells him that he will be freed if he will only sign a declaration admitting his mistake, but this the proud nobleman resolutely refuses to do. When Antonio takes him inside the building, two women appear. They are the Countess and the Duchess, once again in her maidservant's disguise, come to speak with Félix. When the Countess retires, she pours out her guilt, and her determination to right her lover's wrongs, in the well-known Romanza "Un tiempo fue".

When Félix appears, he is amazed to see "Leonor". She half convinces him that she is indeed not the Duchess, and that he should sign the declaration to that effect, but when the arrival of the Marquis is announced she admits everything to Félix, who understands what has happened and tells her that he will deal with his Machiavellian rival. The Marquis is astonished when Félix tells him that the veiled lady is waiting for him in the next room. The Marquis goes to find her, only to be set upon by the lunatics and stripped virtually naked. When the inmates come into the courtyard to auction off his clothes, Félix, Antonio and the Duchess prepare to flee in the confusion - only to be stopped by the Duke, who orders his daughter to cease this shameful folly. She declares that, as a wealthy widow, she is free to marry whoever she likes. Her father retorts that if so, Félix will be locked up forever. At this impasse the Countess returns bearing a letter from the King. In gratitude for the services of the Medinas to the crown, he has given his blessing to the Duchess's union with Félix. There is general joy and relief from everyone - apart from the Marquis, who rushes in half-naked, pursued by the lunatics and shouting for help. Nobody pays any attention, and the zarzuela ends with his humiliation at the hands of the lunatics, as he vows to take revenge on his persecutors (Aria y coro: "¡Quién me socorre!")

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