Cast: Giulia Semenzato (Anquises), Natalie Pérez (Venus), Alicia Amo (Eumene), Eva María Soler Boix (Diana), Amalia Montero Neira (Brújula), Yannick Debus (Títiro), Javier Dotú (Narrator), Los Elementos, d. Alberto Miguélez Rouco
Glossa GCD 922529 [2-CD, 126:00]
In 2011 Glossa astonished Baroque opera fans with their release of José de Nebra’s Iphigenia en Tracia, in a superlative performance directed by Emilio Moreno, who had come across the two-act zarzuela in the Royal Monastery Library of El Escorial, where the score had been languishing since its 1747 premiere. Its individual mastery made it a major rediscovery. Nine years on Glossa have come up with the goods again, in reviving another two-act zarzuela, Vendado es Amor, no es ciego from 1744. The earliest of Nebra’s four surviving zarzuela scores is Viento es la dicha de amor (1743), which can be heard in Naïve’s complete 1996 recording, with Ensemble Baroque de Limoges under Christophe Coin. Nebra’s first act from the collaboratively composed opera Amor aumenta el valor (1728) has also made it to disc.
While Iphigenia’s text was a very loose reworking of Euripedes’s drama of sibling recognition, Vendado es Amor, no es ciego (‘Love’s eyes may be bound, but are not blind’) boasts an original plot by José de Cañizares, the leading Spanish librettist of the day. It is a beautiful text. He took the Greek story of the Dardanian Prince Anchises and his affair with Venus – the upshot of which was Aeneas – and turned it into a three-way tug between the Goddess of Love, Diana and her attendant nymph Eumene. Faced with Diana’s implacable fury, the powerfully dangerous Venus eventually gives way, aiding a happy ending for the nymph and her vacillating human lover. In Spanish baroque tradition, all four roles are for soprano – as is the graciosa shepherdess Brújula, perpetually engaged in a slanging match with her own admirer, Anchises’s servant Títiro, the zarzuela’s only male soloist. This rustic comedy mirroring of the main action was carried over into the 19th and 20th century romantic zarzuela.
Nebra’s music is of consistent quality, in a series of full-dress da capo arias for the five principals, wonderfully varied in tone and always tailored to their dramatic context. There is a vibrant nautical ‘simile’ aria for Eumene; a drop-dead gorgeous pastoral lament (with obbligato flutes) for Diana; and an emotional, allegro-adagio switchback aria for Venus which brings Handel to mind, though the style – lighter in bass, more ornamental in melodic line – is very much Nebra’s own.
As the conductor/director Alberto Miguélez Rouco points out in Glossa’s performance notes, what distinguishes this music from Italian models is its peculiarly Spanish insistence on subtly-graded markings of tempo and dynamics, an insistence developed further by Boccherini a few years later. This gives the music a special delicacy. Add to that an extraordinary ‘Aria a cuatro’ for the lovers, well-integrated choral interjections, and a handful of Spanish dance forms – a seguidillas and fandango for the two graciosos in their duet, and a short seguidillas for the hero Anquises, and we have a firmly dramatic score able to hold its head up in any company.
Rouco is a true talent, who (shades of René Jacobs) is in demand as a male contralto, playing such varied roles as Purcell’s Dido and Adalberto in Handel’s Ottone, while also developing his skills with the young players and singers of Los Elementos – a group based not in Spain, but at the Scola Cantorum Basiliensis, where many of its members trained. His achievement here is to invest Nebra’s score with theatricality, without sacrificing any detail, and his youthful, fresh-voiced cast sound entirely authentic. Natalie Pérez has just the hint of imperious steel needed to encompass the conflicted Venus’s high-octane arias, while Eva María Soler Boix’s softer-grained soprano makes a good foil as Diana, radiant in her pastoral highlight. Alicia Amo’s grace and Giulia Semenzato’s warmth gently differentiate the afflicted lovers. The blissful, unforced melding of these four voices in the ‘Aria a cuatro’ is a special pleasure.
Amalia Montero Neira communicates Brújula’s saltier texts strongly, and is well up to the no less virtuosic technical demands of her two arias. She also works well in tandem with Yannick Debus’s bright baritone, for Brújula’s dúo with Títito – his only vocal contribution, for a character short on music and long on dialogue.
Talking of dialogue, Rouco’s instincts led him see that in zarzuela, to eliminate the spoken word entirely loses the sense of dramatic continuity. But I feel that using a single actor (in character as Títiro) to deliver purpose-written narratives between numbers has the same deflating result as in recordings of semi-operas such as Oberon or King Arthur. Faintly jocular monologue sits ill with the music – I am sure Cañizares’s original dialogue offers no such lame duckery – and the velvet sophistication of veteran Javier Dotú, one of Spain’s most popular dubbing artists, is simply out of style. More reverberantly recorded than the singers, and over-miked, he sounds pasted in. Why not let the thirteen solo and choral singers loose on some expertly-trimmed dialogue, from the original text? That would have replicated the original production, where choral singers would have played any small spoken roles.
Having said which, earlier Nebra zarzuela recordings didn’t even make the attempt, and at least there is something here to represent the hablados, even if the solution is worse than the (perceived) problem. Everything else – not least the important choral interjections, where the text is very clearly projected – works beautifully, and the instrumental accompaniment is beautifully handled, as to balance and refinement. Those spoken narratives apart, Glossa’s lapidary recording strikes me as a complete success, and as usual their inclusion of authoritative notes, libretto and translations is exemplary. I look forward to hearing more from Los Elementos and their conductor: they have done José de Nebra proud.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2020