a brief obituary by Christopher Webber
The death in Madrid of the tenor and actor Enrique del Portal, following a recent fall, breaks one of the last links with zarzuela’s golden past. The sad circumstances of his demise, at a time when – according to his widow, the singer and impresario Nieves Fernández de Sevilla – the city’s medical authorities were unable to offer him the care he needed, due to the horrific crisis of the coronavirus outbreak, has understandably overshadowed a proper appreciation of the singer’s remarkably long and eminent career. That will come in time, for sure.
Portal’s studies at the Royal Conservatoire in Madrid were followed (in 1959) by his debut at Teatro Fuencarral. Three years later he won a contract to appear as a principal tenor at Teatro de la Zarzuela, where he appeared with great success in the lyric lead roles of El caserío, Marina and – under the composer Pablo Sorozábal’s own direction – La tabernera del puerto. Alternating zarzuela with opera and operetta he went on to appear in very many productions throughout Spain, and on tour in Latin America, many with the José Tamayo company.
Turning to the lyric character repertoire, his signature roles included Cardona in Doña Francisquita, Atenedoro in La revoltosa and (much later) Don Hilarión in La verbena de la Paloma – many in productions also featuring his long-time friend and colleague Alfredo Kraus. Two other roles in which he particularly excelled were Casto José in La corte del Faraón and the title role of El barberillo de Lavapiés. He also appeared in La vida breve alongside the young José Carreras, and as the Innkeeper in El retablo del maese Pedro. He was contracted to appear in the world premiere of Sorozábal’s Juan José at Teatro de la Zarzuela: and when that production (infamously) fell through, he took part in its hastily-assembled replacement, La del Soto del Parral.
Diversifying later in his long career into acting (including many comedy character roles at Teatro de la Zarzuela) he was later granted the title of ‘Profesor Superior de Canto’ by the Ministry of Culture and was the recipient of many prestigious awards, notably the Premio Federico Romero from SGAE. Excellent diction, fresh vocal presence and understated comedy – the smile rather than the broad grin: these were the trademarks of his distinctive, personal style as a singing actor. He also made a great number of zarzuela recordings and videos, most notably perhaps his benchmark Cardona opposite Kraus in Carillon’s 1974 complete recording of Doña Francisquita. That testament ensures his voice and genial presence lives on.
In 2007, Pedro Gómez Manzanares interviewed Enrique del Portal for zarzuela.net, alongside his son (and successor in so many roles) Enrique Ruiz del Portal. This in-depth meeting conveys delightfully the singer-actor’s generous attitudes to the genre to which he gave so much.
© Christopher Webber 2020