Teatro de la Zarzuela, 2006
La tabernera del puerto

“Los cantantes de Cantabreda”

Christopher Webber

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Complete recordings

Fragmentary Excerpts

Pablo Sorozabal in the recording studio
Pablo Sorozábal
in the recording studio

It has been said, that a good recording of Verdi’s Il Trovatore needs one, simple ingredient – the four greatest singers in the world. La tabernera del puerto is perhaps the zarzuela equivalent, except that in place of the classic operatic quartet of soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone Sorozábal demands the conjunction (familiar from Arrieta’s Marina, in many ways the work’s template) of lyric soprano, tenor, baritone and basso profondo. In Act Two, these four must negotiate the sequence of famous canciones and romanzas which stretch vocal technique and interpretative power to the utmost, and it is no surprise that so many Spanish singers have been drawn to record these roles.

Given the Act Two sequence and its many other vocal opportunities, little wonder that La tabernera… has proved the most popular of Sorozábal’s stage works on vinyl and CD, a fact to which the extensive (though by no means exhaustive) discography in the Biblioteca Nacional testifies. But a good La tabernera… on disc will not only be about great singing. The salt-tang in the air of the mythical “Cantabreda” coast is marvellously evoked by Sorozábal, in piquant, Debussyesque harmonies combined with rumbustious Basque tunes and percussive, jazz rhythms, all supporting an essentially Spanish lyricism. La tabernera… is also amongst his most symphonically taut stage works, an advantage which can make gramophone listening away from the stage an unusually satisfying experience. Sorozábal’s orchestral imagination, a highly personal mixture of dagger-sharp woodwind interventions, luscious string cantilenas and impressionistic seascapes, comes across clearly even in relatively crude recordings – although it must be said at once that La tabernera… has been very fortunate in the recording studio.

1936 was certainly not the best year to launch a new zarzuela, and it is no surprise that the onset of War resulted in far fewer recordings of La tabernera… on 78 rpm discs than might have been expected, given the huge success of its Barcelona premiere. As we shall see, of the stellar quartet of singers – Conchita Panadés, Faustino Arregui, Marcos Redondo and Aníbal Vela – who sang on that famous night only Redondo and Vela have left any records of the work, and Vela’s contribution is limited to his participation in the Terceto No.2: “¡Qué días aquellos de la juventud!”, one of a pair of numbers recorded under the composer for the Odeón company at the time of the Barcelona run. The other, an inestimable treasure, is Redondo’s Act Three Romanza No. 13: “No te acerques”. A mere handful of recordings under the composer and Maestro Pascual Godés followed, and it was not until 1958 – well into the age of LP – that Sorozábal was able to record his most popular zarzuela in its musical entirety, for the Hispavox company in Madrid. Two more, equally complete recordings were to follow under the composer’s baton, and between them these three LP sets provide an authentic benchmark by which later recordings of La tabernera del puerto on CD and DVD have been – and will continue to be – judged.


Complete Recordings

Alfredo Kraus
Alfredo Kraus

There is often a unique electricity to premiere recordings, and the 1958 Hispavox LP set is no exception. Sorozábal the conductor is as decisive as Sorozábal the composer. His aphoristic, brisk, vigorous podium style ensures an energetic, dramatically taut performance from the Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid which on the other hand loses nothing in lyric fervour or flexibility. He invariably knew how to get the best out of his performers, and in 1958 he had a specially promising cast with whom to work. Zaragoza’s favourite daughter Pilar Lorengar – then in her youthful prime – might have been expected to play the title role, but in her absence Leda Barclay makes a good alternative. Although she occasional struggles to be heard over the orchestra in the more heavily scored passages, such as the Act Three storm scene, Barclay’s technically well-produced soprano with its pronounced vibrato and warm tone provides much pleasure, especially in her showpiece No.6b: “En un país de fabula vivía un viejo artista…”. In the two romantic dúos she rather pales by the side of her Leandro, Alfredo Kraus in one of his first complete zarzuela recordings. His virile ardour, glorious stream of spinto tone and lapidary diction sound as astounding now as they must have seemed then, and his Romanza No.8 “¡No puede ser! Esa mujer es buena…” is, musically speaking, the outstanding highlight of the set. His characterisation of the ardent young fisherman is proud, even occasionally cold-eyed, steel-strong throughout.

Renato Cesari
Renato Cesari

The more one listens to La tabernera del puerto, the more apparent it becomes that the particular quality of a recorded performances is defined by the singer in the pivotal role of Juan de Eguía, that pirate-colossus who bestrides the plot, as fascinating as he is repellent. In 1958 the Argentine baritone Renato Cesari took the role. He was a great favourite of Sorozábal’s in the studio, and it is easy to hear why. His was a distinctively grainy voice, with an almost tenorial high tesitura “croon” comparable to his contemporary, Luis Sagi-Vela, but possessing a firmer, quintessentially masculine middle register. Though his powers of characterisation were generalised, his vocal control was stupendous, as witness the effortless way he takes an optional, pianissimo High G at the end of the Terceto-habanera in Act One. Cesari is every inch the Gentleman, all sensitive vocal nuance even where a degree of brute force seems to be called for, and so his characterisation of that catchy piece of “political incorrectness”, No. 6c: “La mujer, de los quince a los veinte…”, is all charm and little bravado. His old companion, the drunken English sailor Simpson (no national stereotypes, please!) is memorably played by Jorge Algorta, the first of a series of marvellously firm Spanish basses in the role, with a consistent, rounded timbre sounding like well-oiled English oak.

Enriqueta Serrano
Enriqueta Serrano

The composer’s wife Enriqueta Serrano, in one of the last records before her untimely death from cancer, takes the role of Abel, but her matronly tone and very feminine vocal persona are not ideal in this tricky “breeches” role. Luisa Espinosa and José Marín make a suitably vulgar comedy pair, and there is a pleasant, subtly comedic Ripalda from Enrique Fuentes. The mono recording is sweet on the ear, and most beautifully balanced for its time – an advantage the remastered edition from EMI (2000) captures well. The somnolent, negro murmurs in Simpson’s Tango have a haunting, distant ambience; the La Mer-like palette of woodwind arpeggios and magical, muted trumpets in the Act Three dúo and storm scene come across with great immediacy. Unlike its previous CD incarnation, this latest version also has the advantage of fitting the whole recording onto one disc. All in all, with its sprinkling of dialogue in addition to the passages spoken over music, the 1958 version occupies a very special niche of honour.

Manuel Ausensi
Manuel Ausensi

The protagonist in Sorozábal’s 1968 stereo “remake” for Columbia-Alhambra is without question the Juan de Eguía of Manuel Ausensi. Here we have the brutal, coarse pirate to the life. He swaggers through “Chibiri, chibiri”, before welling over with sentimental self-pity in his Act Three Romanza. This is not a vocally unblemished performance – Ausensi often sings under the note in alt, and his ample tone can sometimes sound hectoring at forte – but the characterisation is always vivid. Victor de Narke packs a punch as Simpson, relatively lightweight but sharply pointed verbally in “Despierta negra”. Alicia de la Victoria’s Abel is a strong asset, her rich but vibrato-free soprano reminiscent of a boy alto; the comedy pair of Carmen Rodríguez Aragón and Eduardo Fuentes have an amusingly aristocratic air about them; Ramón Regidor’s Ripalda is neat and funny. Juan Manuel Ariza is strong and youthful enough in tone and timbre to make an effective Leandro; but despite this sympathetic personality his musical phasing is often four-square, especially in “No puede ser”, and he is audibly strained above the stave. He is, in the wrong sense, “all at sea” in the Act Three dúo, and this remains a performance which one wishes to like more than one actually does.

Ana Higueras Aragon
Ana Higueras Aragón

His Marola is an excellent, young singer caught at the start of her career – Ana Higueras Aragón. She captures well the moment where a “head in the clouds” girl turns into a woman, and makes a good foil to set against Ausensi’s weather-beaten father. And though a lack of technical perfection surfaces occasionally in her performance, she sings the sensual first phrase of “Marinero vete a la mar” with adorable simplicity, and her spoken confession to Leandro ( No. 8 bis. “Yo soy de un puerto lejano…” ) is movingly acted. She and Ariza, however, do not blend well together stylistically; and paradoxically the stereo recording is less clear (particularly in its antiquated, current BMG CD transfer) than the mono Hispavox from a decade before. There is some disconcerting spotlighting of instrumental details, for example the harp in the No.2 Terceto, and the orchestral playing from the Orquesta Sinfónica can be rough. Columbia-Alhambra included a greater quantity of dialogue, but it is heavily done. The composer/conductor himself is on gruff form, too, and altogether this is a performance valuable for individual contributions – most notably Ausensi’s – rather than conveying the overall sweep and beauty of Sorozábal’s conception.

Isabel Penagos
Isabel Penagos

The 1971 Zafiro recording is a very different proposition. In what was to prove one of his last recordings, Sorozábal revealed his score in a fresh light, taking significantly broader tempi in the love music and generating a fearsome energy elsewhere which was quite amazing for a man in his mid 70’s. As ever, he adapted his approach to his cast, notably more “operatic” in weight than in the earlier LP sets. This is especially true of Isabel Penagos, whose Marola is a size larger than any other singer’s. The Act One Final No.5: ¡Aquí está la culpable!… is less comedic, much more a dangerous confrontation with the port’s women than usual, and her sumptuously smooth legato line and creamy-rich tone in En un país de fábula vivía un viejo artista… give this great vocal showpiece a rare sensuality. With Penagos, we could be on the edge of tragedy throughout, which makes for powerfully moving effect in her encounters with the straightforward, bright and strong-muscled Leandro of Julián Molina. Their voices blend particularly well in the Act One dúo, where they sustain Sorozábal’s broad tempo with unwavering breath control, vocal opulence and moving dramatic power. This is great singing; and although elsewhere Molina can become lachrymose, and his attention to detailed phrasing does not rival Alfredo Kraus, he and Penagos provide a memorable match.

Pedro Farres
Pedro Farrés

More controversial is the highly distinctive Juan de Eguía of the Catalan Pedro Farrés. His fast vibrato and dark-grained, monolithic baritone are perhaps an acquired taste, but he manages to control its immense size sufficiently to paint an unforgettable portrait of a villain whose soul is shot through with poetry. If “Chíbiri, chíbiri” is surprisingly dark and dangerous, “No te acerques” is a very different matter. Again, Sorozábal relaxes the tempo, and Farrés responds with an outpouring of heartfelt grief of unforgettable power. This is a tragic figure, lost in his own dark world. Julio Catania’s Simpson is equally impressive, a portrait worthy of Velasquez. He sings his Tango with saturnine depth and evenness of tone, effortlessly conveying a sense of righteous anger at the plight of the negro sailors. Meanwhile the “ Mississippi tom-toms” pound out their highly hypnotic, rhythmic drumming accompaniment. Alicia de la Victoria repeats her fine Abel, here lighter and more gently melancholic than in 1968. It might be felt that Catania and Farrés are not contrasted enough in vocal character; the stereo is comparatively crude, the orchestral playing is not always subtle, chorus and soloists are placed very forward in the sound picture. However, these are small prices to pay for such committed, stirring music making. As the composer-conductor’s “Final Testament” to his beloved Marola, this Zafiro set is a remarkable document which demands immediate restoration to the CD catalogue.

Maria Bayo
María Bayo

The 1996 Auvidis Valois recording is the first complete set to grace the CD era. Víctor Pablo Pérez may not aim for the fierce energy and theatricality which the composer applied to his own recordings, but he is a cultivated musician with a finely-tuned ear for orchestral balance. Such details as Sorozábal’s woodwind imitation of Abel’s tinny accordion-playing come over most evocatively, and the delicate French and Basque components of the score are clearly delineated. María Bayo is at her brilliant best as Marola, combining languorous sensuality and coloratura brilliance (in the passage work of “En un país de fabula”) with that sharp intelligence uniquely her own. The comedy Terceto No.9: “Marola resuena en el oído” is a special joy, where she is well supported by Isabel Monar’s light and lucid Abel, and Emilio Sánchez’s witty Ripalda. Enrique Baquerizo’s firm Simpson is yet another triumph for the school of Spanish bass singing, in a role well served in every performance. He has the self-confidence to end his Tango quietly on a sustained middle B flat, rather than going for the top E flat “big finish” preferred by his competitors, and the effect is intensely arresting. Maybe the composer should have trusted his own score better!

Placido Domingo
Plácido Domingo

Plácido Domingo is Leandro. In the late 1990’s his voice had lost some of its force, but little of its beauty and evenness throughout the range – nor does he employ any of the baritonal colours which have re-asserted themselves in his work today. All this makes him a Leandro close to the ideal. Of course, “No puede ser” has become his vocal Calling Card around the world, but of his many recordings of the famous romanza none is more thrilling than this, and hearing it in its dramatic context adds poignancy. He and Bayo combine well in the dúos, as do the comedy couple Rosa María Ysás and Jesús Castejon. Their No.3: ¡Ven aquí, camastrón!… has a playful, ribald quality which is endearing. Juan Pons sings Juan de Eguía with bronzed and beautiful tone throughout, and pays scrupulous attention to verbal details. If his characterisation seems self-contained, that may be more to do with the overall feeling of a performance which is stronger on good taste than it is on passion. But with such faultless orchestral playing and choral singing – not to mention the inestimable benefit of a truly modern, dynamic recording – this is likely to remain the “reference version” of Sorozábal’s score. Although it is currently deleted, the new owners of the Auvidis Valois label, Naïve, are gradually re-introducing their zarzuela recordings to the catalogue and the frustrating situation should not continue for too long.



Elisa Velez
Elisa Vélez

No.8 in José María Damunt’s Zarzuelas inolvidables was recorded live at the 2002 Festival de Ópera de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Although the settings are minimal and the production very basic, there is much to admire about the singing, not least Elisa Vélez’s bright, perfectly tuned soprano in the title role and Antonio Adame’s stylish Leandro. Elu Arroyo’s Simpson is also strong, and although Vicente Lacárcel is prone to some woolly singing above the stave, he makes a credible, bear-like Juan de Eguía. Additional attractions are a pretty Abel from María Luisa Pönicke, and an outrageously gay Ripalda from Airam Ramírez. José María Damunt controls his vocal and orchestral forces with a steady hand – although it is a pity that he supplements the masculine chorus of sleeping negroes in Simpson’s Tango with some high female ones. The effect is incongruously angelic and very far from what the composer had in mind. The DVD is crudely produced, with no detailed chapter markings and irritating “musical fragments” between the three acts; but the score and libretto are performed absolutely complete in what is at least an enjoyable entertainment.


Fragmentary Excerpts

Marcos Redondo
Marcos Redondo

The fragments recorded on 78 r.p.m. shellac discs in the pre-LP era by Marcos Redondo are of the highest value. Juan de Eguía was written for him, and his reading of “No te acerques” demonstrates the astounding technical control and interpretative powers of a great singer in his prime. In the Tristanesque vocalise at the beginning of the truncated Act One terceto, sung with the original Simpson and Verdier (Aníbal Vela and Antonio Ripoll)  he takes us back in time and place to “when the world was young” most magically. Unfortunately Redondo’s sole recording of “Chibiri, chibiri” – a later addition to the score written at his specific request after the Barcelona run – was made in the 1950’s, when the singer no longer had the vocal flexibility to do himself full justice.


Of those other early recordings, the 1936 readings of the love-dúos and “En un país de fabula” by María Espinalt with Vicente Simón show these artists a little way below their best. The version of “No puede ser” found on Blue Moon BMCD 7518 – a very useful compilation of many of these fragments –   is wrongly attributed to Simón, being in fact a later recording made in Barcelona by the little-known Asturian singer Marcelino del Llano, who went on to sing in the premieres of Black el payaso and Guerrero’s Loza Lozana in the early 1940’s. He demonstrates a strong, reedy but unwieldy tenor with effortful, strained high notes. The transfer on Aria 1033 gets these details right, and sounds better. More worthwhile are Sorozábal’s 1943 Barcelona recordings for Columbia: a vibrant, graceful “Chíbiri, chíbiri” from Antonio Medio; a sonorous, mellow (and sadly truncated) “Despierta negro” from Manuel Gas; and a pointed, energetic performance of the Dúo Cómico featuring Enriqueta Serrano and Manuel Alares, who are joined for the Act Two terceto by Pepita Embil, the mother of Plácido Domingo, whose velvet-rich Marola – equally sumptuous in her “En un país de fabula…” – makes us wish she had recorded more of the title role.


This brings us to the most recorded tenor song in the entire zarzuela repertoire, “No puede ser”, which Domingo himself has made famous in countless galas líricas around the world. Of his many live and studio versions on CD and DVD (many from Three Tenors concerts) the EMI Classics 49148 displays him at his 1988 vocal zenith, but even this does not surpass the dramatic intensity of his reading in the complete Auvidis performance. Sorozábal notoriously claimed that he never wanted tenors to sing “No puede ser” for him at auditions, as it was so well written for the voice that it always made its effect; but in spite of that, it still proves difficult for singers to hit the mark on disc! Amongst José Carreras’s recordings, the 1994 studio version with the English Chamber Orchestra under Enrique Ricci on the Erato CD entitled Passion of Spain is both heartfelt and moving. What is impressive, is the skill with which the artist uses textual nuance to cover any purely vocal limitations.


Alfredo Kraus made several stand-alone versions of “No puede ser” at various stages of his career, all of them marked by his inimitably proud vocal personality and fastidious craftsmanship. The most affecting and interesting of them is the very earliest, recorded in 1958 at about the same time as his complete recording, and with the same orchestra and conductor (Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid, d. Sorozábal.) This version, very clearly a different “take” from the highly-charged reading in the complete LP set, is subtly more reflective, less virtuosic, more relaxed – and all the more effective for that. Kraus employs a wider palette of tone colours here than in his other recordings, without yielding anything in cutting edge or elegance of line. This recording, from the indispensable Romanzas y dúos de Zarzuela (CDZ 7 62756 2) is a gramophone classic.

Vicente Simon
Vicente Simón

Of the rest, Pedro Lavirgen’s 1963 Hispavox record (with the Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid under the composer) is viscerally exciting without necessarily demonstrating fully the singer’s potential for colour or subtlety. Vicente Simón’s sensitive delicacy is well represented by his 1936 78 rpm Odeón Barcelona recording. Vincenzo la Schola’s live Bologna recital with piano accompaniment (Bongiovanni GB25202, 1996) shows off his plangent, flexible tenor to fine effect. Otherwise, there exists an intriguing 1958 recording of the orchestral Interludio from Act Three in Pasodobles y marchas de Pablo Sorozábal, a life-enhancing collection from the composer and his Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid (Hispavox HH 10476 and many reissues). Punchy, mischievous and electrically tense, this exhilarating version is a summation of Sorozábal’s energetic gifts as composer and conductor.

© 2006 Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid & Christopher Webber

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