Ricardo de la Vega

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Last updated August 1st 2000

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Ricardo de la Vega
Ricardo de la Vega
(1839 - 1910)

Son of Ventura de la Vega and the opera singer Manuela de Oreiro y Lema, Ricardo was born in Madrid 7th February 1839, where he died on 22nd June 1910. It is hardly surprising that his academic studies and later work as an official for the Ministries of Public Works and Information, has to take second place to a career in the theatre. He was also something of an anglophile, like his great novelist contemporary Benito Peréz Galdós, and a regular at the Cafe Inglés, a central hub of the famous Madrid cafe tertulias (debating clubs) in the last quarter of the century.

He began in the time-honoured writer's galleys, making translations from aristocratic French comedies, but very far from following his father's path towards verse drama and the three-act zarzuela grande, he was drawn to the world of Ramon de la Cruz, whose brief comic sainetes - especially the vignettes of Madrid street life - proved a fruitful model. Close contact with the costumbre (customs) of popular life in Madrid, its fiestas and verbenas, bullrings and theatres, served him well in forging a refreshing new style of theatre, the género chico - short, one-act slices of Madrid life - which he developed stylistically worlds away from the crude bufos (comic sketches) presented by the popular writer and entrepreneur Arderius.

De la Vega's very first sainete was Frasquito, written for the young Caballero in 1859, but his talent was fully revealed in collaboration with Chueca and Valverde. Their sequence of género chico zarzuelas began with ¡A los toros! (1877), succeeded by La función de mi pueblo in 1878; but it was with La canción de la Lola (1880) that the new genre really became a mass mania. This satirical squib was so universally popular, that the city authorities feared it might become the focus for popular revolutionary ferment, and bans were imposed.

Other leading composers were understandably keen to hitch their wagons to the rising star, and collaborations with the likes of Barbieri (De Getafe al Paraíso in 1883; El señor Luis el tumbón - his final score - in 1891) and Chapí (El Domingo gordo from 1886; A casarse tocan, 1889) followed swiftly. Chueca and Valverde's huge success with the music for Felipe Pérez y González's revue La Gran Vía prefigured a new triumph with de la Vega in El año pasado por agua (1889). He also worked with Giménez, and provided another success for Chueca and Valverde with La abuela in 1897.

However, his greatest and most enduring triumph came in collaboration with a more "serious" composer - Tomás Bretón. The masterly sainete La verbena de la Paloma was written with Chapí in mind, who for contractual reasons was unable to complete the music. (It has been held that his unfinished score found its way into La revoltosa, but the evidence for this is tenuous). Bretón was handed the jewel, and certainly made the most of it despite his own misgivings. Their follow-up Al fin se casa la Nieves (1895) did not enjoy the same success - but the completed La verbena remains the touchstone of the entire género chico repertoire. For this one work alone, a fluent mixture of verse and prose, with a large and vivid range of tipos (character types), and pithy exploration of Madrid's social and sexual mores, its author's name will survive wherever Spanish is spoken or sung.

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