|Antonio García Gutiérrez|
This page is © Christopher Webber
Famous – or infamous – as the young, romantic playwright responsible for two dramas which inspired magnificent Verdi operas, Gutiérrez has been less noted for his role within the tight circle of writers and composers who fostered zarzuela as a national art form during the 1850’s and 60’s. He is certainly one of the most internationally celebrated authors to be associated with the genre.
Born 5 July 1813 (though some sources give July 1812, others October 1813)¹ in Chiclana de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz, he abandoned his medical studies during 1833 to pursue literary life in Madrid. There he earned a pittance through journalism for La Revista Española, and by translating plays from the French of Scribe and Dumas Père. He was on the point of enlisting for the army when his wild, sweeping drama El trovador, premiered Teatro del Príncipe, March 1st 1836, proved an uproarious success, catapulting the unknown 23 year old to fame at home and abroad. In 1842 El trovador was duly turned into an opera (or zarzuela – there is some debate) by librettist Andrés Porcell, with music by Francisco Porcell ². There is no debate whatsoever about the success of Verdi’s 1853 opera to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, completed after his death by Emanuele Bardare: Il trovatore remains one of the best beloved warhorses in the operatic stable.
El trovador is inspirational, wild and romantic, placing passion way above the demands (and literary constraints) of reason. Its characters act through primal emotions, intuitions and dreams. Their archetypal nature created a theatrical bombshell, despite the logical implausibilities of Gutiérrez’s plot. No wonder his attempts to outdo this phenomenon, better crafted though they may have been, did not come off. Simón Bocanegra (1843) enjoyed only a mild success – though it once again attracted the attention of Verdi, whose Simon Boccanegra [sic.] (1857/1881) has in recent years enjoyed a huge revival in public esteem.
Disillusioned with theatre after Bocanegra, Gutiérrez emigrated in 1844 to work as a journalist in Cuba and Mexico, returning to Spain five years later to canvas as a liberal politician. After the Partido Progresista’s 1854 electoral triumph he hoped to be appointed to a government post in London, but this was not to be. Meanwhile his friendships with Ventura de la Vega and Barbieri brought him into the group of artists working towards the foundation of Teatro de la Zarzuela. He wrote his first zarzuela with Barbieri in 1853, the three-act La espada de Bernardo. Although his libretto was not much praised, the music was; and from that moment on Gutiérrez collaborated, alone and with writers such as Luis Olona, on numerous zarzuela projects. With Olona he rewrote Scribe and Auber’s opera Une reine d’un jour, as Un día de reinado (1854), set to music by Gaztambide and his cousin Javier, together with Barbieri, Inzenga and Oudrid.
For Barbieri he went on to write a number of works, most notably the two-act El robo de las Sabinas (1859), celebrated in its day for the popular coro de puñales. His most regular collaborator, though, was Emilio Arrieta. Amongst their many zarzuelas the one-act El grumete (1853) is regularly cited as a fine work worth reviving, although La cacería real (1854), Azón Visconti (1858), Dos coronas and Llamada y tropa (both 1861) have had their admirers too. The intriguingly-named La tabernera de Londres (1862), and a sequel to El grumete entitled La vuelta del corsario (1863) did not enjoy comparable approval.
Meanwhile Gutiérrez continued to write plays, of which Venganza catalana (1864, mentioned favourably by Barbieri in the pamphlet commonly known as La Zarzuela) was one of the last and most sensationally epic. His work in the Teatro de la Zarzuela was diluted by election to the Real Academia de la Lengua in 1865 (or, according to other sources 1861) and cut off by his appointment as Consul, first to Bayonne in the French Basque Country, then to Genoa in Italy (1868-9) where he was feted as the original author of El trobador and Simón Bocanegra. He returned to Spain in 1872 as Director of Madrid’s archaeological museum, remaining in the post until his death in the capital, on August 26th 1884.
Gutiérrez’s zarzuela texts are as far removed from the molten passions of his youthful plays, as is this early portrait, with its flowing locks and confident air, from the careworn, late image of the mature writer. El grumete is described by Oliva G. Balboa in Diccionario de la Zarzuela as “clear and well-developed, evocative of its Cantabrian coastal setting”: the limpid quality of the author’s verse certainly suits Arrieta’s lovely score, not least in the once-popular barcarola final. Those who claim that Gutiérrez outlived his youthful fame may be questioned. At all events, the untamed young playwright grew into a tamer but perhaps more admirable craftsman on behalf of the cause of La Zarzuela: and for that he deserves only praise.
¹ Thanks to Andrew
Lamb for researching the range of possibilities.
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