Like his fellow Basque Juan Arriaga, José María Usandizaga was fated to die young. If such engaging scores as this, the orchestral Hassan y Melihah and the String Quartet had made the prelude rather than epilogue to his career ... well, who knows? The main thing is that Mendi Mendiyan, like the later and infinitely better-known zarzuela Las Golondrinas, is one of those scores that grabs you by the throat and won't let go. It's a real find; and though Mendi Mendiyan ("Mountain Heights") hasn't thus far made inroads outside its Basque homeland, this enjoyable Marco Polo set might just change all that.
Like Vaughan Williams' Hugh the Drover (also written about 1910) this is pastoral folk-drama, pitting youthful ideals and indigence against wealth and age. The plot, centred on the rivalry between poor (tenor) shepherd and rich (baritone) landowner for the heart of the young (soprano) heroine, Andrea, is strikingly similar to that of D'Albert's popular opera Tiefland (1903), even down to symbolic resonances evoked by the heros killing of a predatory wolf . But as Tiefland in its turn set the play Terra baixa by Àngel Guimerà it's likely that José Power's libretto drew its inspiration direct from that same Catalan source. Mendi Mendiyan parts company from Hugh and Tiefland in denying its soprano and tenor any happy-ever-aftering. Instead, the rich suitor brutally dispatches his rival with an axe and flees the country, leaving Andrea to bewail her ruined life in a frozen, snow-bound epilogue.
Much of the material is drawn direct from Basque folksong, filtered through a technique nurtured on French, Wagnerian and verismo methods. As we would expect the festive choral scenes and dances go well, but unlike some of his contemporaries Usandizaga's inspiration doesn't stop there. His folktunes aren't used as closed numbers, but are woven seamlessly into the fabric of a broader, harmonically fresh musical flow. That it works is partly down to precocious musical talent, an ability to portray nature in varied moods and seasons, but still more to a natural instinct for theatrical pace. Like the Janacek of Jenufa, Usandizaga had a penchant for flecks of glockenspiel scoring and string melodies featuring flattened sixths. More crucially, he shares that rare ability to characterise a situation quickly and not go on a moment too long. His personality shines through at many points, particularly in the romantic duets and moments of reflective soliloquy. As in Las golondrinas originality and convention rub up against one another, but momentum scarcely flags. Indeed the young composer tangibly gains in confidence as he goes on, taking more risks and touching in that winter epilogue real heights of musical power and beauty.
Though all six principals are given worthwhile things to do, Andrea is the lynchpin; Bulgarian soprano Tatiana Davidova's slavic timbre and solid technique see her capably through all the vocal hoops. Light soprano Marta Ubieta makes the most pleasing impression in the breeches role of the heroine's little brother, and if the other singers are no better than workmanlike they are never less than involving. The excellence of the Coral Andra Mari will be no surprise to those of us who've heard their previous recordings of a capella choruses by Guridi, Donostia, Sorozábal and other Basque masters. Juan José Mena and his Bilbao Symphony Orchestra will be more familiar from their Naxos Spanish Classics, and as usual they make a positive impression, playing Usandisaga's score for most of its considerable passion and much of its subtlety.
The recording, made in Bilbao's Teatro Arriaga (yes, him again) under studio rather than live conditions, is open, clear and detailed if not exactly opulent. With good notes and detailed synopses by Santiago Gorostiza, as well as a complete Basque-only libretto, presentation is well up to standard. Mendi Mendiyan certainly ranks as one of the jewels in Marco Polo's operatic crown, an ear-opener to zarzueleros who thought the composer's stage triumphs began and ended with Las golondrinas, a pleasant surprise to anyone interested in the byways of operatic nationalism a century ago. A hundred years, near enough - and yet Usandizaga's folk tragedy sounds as new-minted now as when he wrote it. Huge praise is due to Marco Polo for making this engaging work available to a wider audience. Next, please, Guridi's Mirentxu, Sorozábal's Juan José - and a top class new recording of Las golondrinas in its original zarzuela version!
© Christopher Webber 2005