Ruritanian romance is a staple subject for light musical theatre, whatever the language. Three-act zarzuela grande boasts its fair share of good operettas; and of these El rey que rabió ("The Crazy" or "Rabid King"), premiered at the Teatro de la Zarzuela on 21st April 1891, has deservedly held its place better than most. Carrión's text, completed like La bruja by Aza, is a sophisticated mix of gentle satire, broad comedy and genuine romance. The characters are clearly delineated individuals, the plot is clever and the structure is sound; and altogether Carrión inspired his composer once again to give of his best.
Although he was more of a musical chameleon than the best of his contemporaries, Chapí's theatrical range was perhaps greater; and it is hard to credit that the hand which penned the fantastic, poetic La bruja could also be responsible for the brooding melodrama of La tempestad, let alone this subtly spiced comedy. Leaving aside his later genéro chico pieces, El rey que rabió is more varied in mood than any of the three-act scores. The romanzas and duets for the King and Rosa; the choruses of pages, and doctors examining the luckless dog; the Reaper's scene; the desperate patter-song for the comedy tenor ... all are amongst his most distinguished numbers. The "breaches" title role was written for the popular soprano Almerinda Soler, although today it is more often sung by a tenor or baritone. It's also worth noting that the pivotal role of the Dog was originally given not by a canine actor, but by one Prieto, a member of the Teatro del Zarzuela chorus!
Act 1, scene 1 - a room in the palace of the King of an imaginary country. The courtiers enthusiastically greet their King, newly returned from a royal progress through his domain (Coro: "Al monarca esperamos"). He relates that everyone in the realm seems content, and the courtiers echo his satisfaction (Coplas: "¡Cuándo el alma se recrea!") Left in private with his cabinet - Chief Minister, Treasurer, Admiral and General - he demands the truth about the state of the nation. Rather than contradict their rosy reports, he resolves to undertake a journey incognito, not as a Count or Duke, but walking on foot as a peasant. When the horrified ministers refuse his request, he leaves them with a threat - if they do not approve, he will accept their resignations. In a witty quartet, the ministers reflect on the terrible consequences resignation would bring - at least to them personally - and decide they won't stand on principle after all (Cuarteto: "¡La dimisión!").
The General has a further bright idea - rather than resign, he will accompany the King on his travels, quietly arranging matters with the Governer as before, to keep up the appearance of a happy, benign state. General and Governer leave to make their preparations. The Admiral and Treasurer gossip about the King's foolishness, and their indignation at being overheard by a simple shepherd turns into embarrassment when this turns out to be the King himself in disguise. Ignoring them, he sings a "pastoral idyll" in which he praises the simple life of the fields, quietly undermined by the Admiral and Treasurer (Idilio Pastoril: "Soy un pastor sencillo").
The General appears, disguised as a cowherd, determined to accompany his master. In an act of supreme self-sacrifice, he has shaved off his moustache, and is roundly mocked by the others for his pains in a "Laughing Quartet" (Cuarteto de la risa: "¿Quién es?"). The King orders the ministers to keep silent about the excursion - in particular the army and court must know nothing about it. With cries of "Long live freedom!" he and the General set off on their journey.
Scene 2 - a town square. Outside the Town Hall the people are protesting noisily against increased taxes (Coro: "Señor alcalde") and the Alcalde (Mayor) is unable to pacify them. He agrees to plead on their behalf with the Governor, and takes them into the Town Hall to help write their petition - which is shortly to be granted by the governor himself, arriving hotfoot to preserve public relations. The foolish innkeeper's boy Jeremías is crying because he has been called up for military service. His cousin and fiancee, the Alcalde's daughter Rosa, comes in carrying a pitcher to the well, and the pair join in a romantic verbal colloquy - by the end of which Jeremías is once again crying, this time for joy as Rosa renews her promise to marry him.
The disguised King and General appear, praising the tranquil peace of the town square. They call for the innkeeper to provide them with food and wine, and Jeremías appears to serve them. The King hears Rosa singing sweetly as she returns from the well, and addresses some romantic couplets to her - Cuarteto: "El chorro de la fuente" much to Jeremías's jealous sorrow.
The people stream out of the Town Hall, singing the praises of the Governor, who has remitted their taxes as promised, and proclaimed a Fiesta-holiday. The King joins in a zortzico dance with Rosa, Jeremías cries even louder and the General waxes indignant. Before he can pull the King away, a platoon of soldiers arrive to pick up the new recruits. Jeremías points out "the shepherd" as another likely lad, and he is forced to join, much to Rosa's anxiety. The General loyally volunteers too, and all three march off with the soldiers as the act ends (Final: "Ahí llega ya la música").
Act 2, scene 1 - a castle courtyard at dawn. Reveille sounds, and two soldiers appear - the King and the General, who asks how his monarch slept. "Sound as a dormouse" comes the reply. The General despairs at the King's contentment, even with the depredations of barracks life. The Alcalde arrives with Rosa, on the pretext of visiting her cousin, but really to steal a word with the shepherd. Once the Alcalde has gone to look for Jeremías, Rosa sings of her changing emotions in the poised Romanza: "Mi tío se figura". The King slips out to join her, and they sing of their devoted determination to overcome all obstacles in a radiant Dúo: "Mientras con los reclutas".
The General is drilling a group of recruits, including Jeremías, and when the Alcalde catches up with them he is surprised to find Rosa missing. A sentry tells him that she has gone off with the other new recruit. Jeremías starts crying and runs after them. The despairing General is handed a letter from the King, who notifies him that he has fled with Rosa. Furiously, the General decides to reveal his true identity and that of the deserting soldier to the Captain of the troop - who responds by putting him on a charge as a drunken liar and sending him off to jail! In the nick of time the governor arrives at the behest of the Alcalde. The General is freed, and all of them go off in pursuit of the errant King.
Scene 2 - the courtyard of a country farm, with harvest haystacks. A group of reapers are heard in the distance, singing of the joy of harvesting (Coro intermedio: "Alegres segadores"). When they enter the courtyard to be greeted by Juan and María, the boss and his wife (Coro y solos: "Andando, segadores") the fugitive lovers are amongst them, and Rosa sings a spirited harvest song (Canción: "Por entre las mieses"). The King and Rosa take the opportunity to canoodle with one another, though María firmly instructs the foreman Lorenzo to make sure that the men go to the haystacks to sleep, the women to the kitchen.
To the strains of a Preludio nocturno, the reapers leave, María locks the door and looses a large dog, which barks furiously when someone comes knocking at the door. It is Jeremías, cold, hungry, and pursued by his Captain, urgently seeking sanctuary in the farmhouse (Raconto: "¡Por Dios! ¡Por la Virgen!") At first Juan refuses to give him hospitality, but María overrules him, hiding Jeremías in the dog's kennel. The jealous dog immediately bites him, and Jeremías screams out for help - a moment before his Captain arrives with the General and the governor searching for a deserter (Quinteto: "Buenas noches").
María denies the truth, Rosa is afraid, the King calms her. When María finally gives the game away, the governor and General depart, leaving it to the junior officer to recapture the King, despite the fact that the Captain does not know him by sight. The King, overhearing from the haystack, points out Jeremías to him, and when the Captain reverently asks Jeremías to mount a carriage and return to the palace the bitten and baffled youngster obliges. Juan accompanies them, carrying the dog to be tested for rabies by the court physicians. The act ends swiftly as María tells Rosa that the deserter has been taken away, but before she can react the King emerges and calms Rosa's fears (Final: "¡Gran dios! ¡Decid!").
Scene 2 - an antechamber. The real King has returned, and is giving instructions to his personal page, Germán. He will continue to deceive his ministers, until he is sure his beloved will accept him for what he is. When Germán goes out to fetch Rosa from the garden, the King sings of his hopes and fears in an ardent Romanza: "¡Intranquilo estoy!".
As Germán returns with Rosa, the King withdraws to leave her alone with her thoughts. She is determined to plead with the King for the life of her beloved shepherd, come what may. Jeremías is brought in by the Captain, and cries to Rosa about his confusion at being brought here with all the courtesy due to a king. Rosa agrees to ask the King to pardon him as well as her shepherd; but when the King eventually enters, to the shock of Jeremías and shame of Rosa herself, it is he who begs her pardon for his deception (Terceto: "Mi amor, mi bien, mi dueño").
Germán appears to inform the King that the ministers and court frantically await news about the bite of the putatively rabid dog. This hardly calms Jeremías's fears, but the King orders him and Rosa to obey his wishes and hustles them away. When the ministers enter, the General is surprised by the Captain's report of the "King's" strange behaviour en route to the palace, all of which seems to confirm their worst fears.
All is explained when the real King is announced, and clears up the confusion: and even if once upon a time there might have been "El rey que rabió" (a "crazy king", or "rabid king"), nowadays that is surely out of the question. The Captain is swiftly promoted to Colonel, all are forgiven, and even the dog is given an officially clean bill of health. When the Treasurer announces that three foreign embassies have come to offer suitable brides, the King really threatens to go mad; but he calms down quickly, and agrees to behave in statesmanlike fashion.
Scene 3 - The throne room. The King receives the ambassadors from Scotland, Italy and Russia, each bearing portraits of lovely prospective Queens. He courteously examines them all (Escena: "Dios ilumine al soberano") but interrupts the charade impetuously by revealing Rosa as his Queen. How can he, when she isn't even an aristocrat? The King rejoins that he has made her a Countess, and the ministers bow to the inevitable as soon as the word "resignation" is mentioned. Jeremías, though glad that the dog isn't rabid after all, goes out crying for jealousy, but the zarzuela ends in a brief hymn of praise to the King and his bride (Final: "¡Viva el Rey!").