In 1870, the ‘annus horribilis’ of the Franco-Prussian War, which made him persona non grata in Paris, Offenbach visited Madrid. His visit was brief – under three weeks by the calendar, from late September – but the significance and impact of this starry apparition was immense, as Enrique Mejías García’s brilliant study demonstrates. Far more than a mere history of that swift working visit, Offenbach, compositor de zarzuelas provides a full chronicle of the composer’s performance history throughout 19th-century Spain, in the original French as well as Spanish adaptations, concluding with the 1905 premiere of Los cuentos de Hofmann in Barcelona. More deeply – as the teasing title hints – it analyses Offenbach’s influence on Spain’s lyric theatre, showing that zarzuela isabelina is fundamentally international in outlook, far more complex than the ‘purely Spanish’ genre isolated by generations of nationalist critics. Mejías also finds room to discuss the frequent use of quasi-Spanish music (‘espagnolades’) in French operetta, and the reflexive influence of this ‘Spanishry’ on the nation’s music itself.
The book is logically structured around that Madrid visit, an exploration which forms the nucleus around which the rest revolve. The chapter also includes a particularly telling analysis of Los brigantes (Les brigands) and its Spanish adaptation by Salvador María Granes, one of the text’s subsidiary heroes. Mejías’s research has turned up much new information about Offenbach’s time in the Spanish capital, as to what he saw and who he met. Wavering between the polar opposites of Arderíus’s ‘Los Bufos’ and Francisco Salas’s company at Teatro de la Zarzuela, he finally signed a contract to work with the latter. This might have led to a new Spanish operetta written for Madrid, but alas … for urgent family reasons Offenbach had to leave suddenly, and he never returned to a city which he evidently found fiscally as well as artistically congenial.
Around this centrepiece, Mejías offers a scene-setting introduction and ten, mainly chronological chapters, which begin with an examination of Barbieri’s highly significant reworking of Les deux aveugles (as Los dos ciegos) in 1855 – highly unusual for its period, in that it actually incorporates material by Offenbach. An account of productions in French at the Teatro Francés (1856-68), is followed by fascinating explorations of the effects of censorship on productions of Los dioses del Olimpo (from Orphée aux Enfers) and La gran duquesa de Gerolstein, zarzuela-pastiches with Offenbach music in the revolutionary years, and an in-depth account of Spanish adaptations of the ‘zarzuelón’ Barba Azul (Barbe-bleue). Ripples in the pond following Offenbach’s visit are represented by studies of spectacular experiments such as El doctor Ox (1877), an account of touring Italian operetta companies and their repertoire in the latter years of the century, and the extensive role of Offenbach in género chico and teatro por horas. Finally comes an account of the Barcelona production of Les contes d’Hoffmann and its resonance for the question of ‘National Opera’ in Castilian.
His astute selection of individual events or works yields Mejías a series of perfect tools with which to lever vital debates concerning the nature of zarzuela’s reliance on Offenbachian models, external views of Spanish society and music conditioned by prejudice and cliché, and the composer’s substantial use of Hispanic tropes and dance forms. He even touches on profound questions of sexuality and hidden identity: we’re reminded that the complex disguises of Les brigands – amplified in Granes’s Castilian adaptation and seemingly approved by the composer himself – perhaps reflect Offenbach’s own complex of Jewish-Prussian-Parisian personas, and are inherent to operetta around the world. All this is presented in a clear, fresh and approachable written style, which completely avoids modish academic impenetrability, while referencing a formidable range of musicological texts in French, German and English as well as Spanish.
Offenbach, compositor de zarzuelas boasts a Foreword by the Zaragoza academic Juan José Carreras, who offers a neat overview of Offenbach’s unparalleled contemporary fame outside France and a reminder that – beyond his academic credentials as a zarzuela and opera historian – the author also translated the libretto of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein for Teatro de la Zarzuela’s 2015 production (reviewed here by La linda tapada). This dual focus might well account for Mejías’s strong sense of internal aesthetics to complement his historical, social and political perspectives. ICCMU’s robust softback is well produced, and very reasonably priced. Impeccably researched and beautifully presented, with many appendices, illustrations and music examples, this book is not only an important contribution to Offenbach scholarship, but also invaluable to the history of romantic zarzuela itself.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2022