If you wish to experience zarzuela “live” rather than on CD or DVD, Madrid is your obvious port of call. Yet alternatives to Madrid do exist, and amongst them Oviedo - capital of the Principality of Asturias - has an especially strong claim to attention. Each spring its Teatro Campoamor houses a Festival Lírico that intersperses visiting Teatro de la Zarzuela productions with others of its own.
Oviedo is an elegant industrial and university city, surrounded by the Asturian hills. It’s well equipped to entertain visitors, and it has an obvious civic pride. It is well maintained and has plenty of architectural interest, as well as broad thoroughfares and a substantial central pedestrian zone (embracing an underground El Corte Inglés). For a relatively compact area, the central Campo de San Francisco is a remarkably well supplied park, with shady walks, impressive sculptures and an appealingly varied range of bird-life that includes ducks, geese, swans and peacocks.
Oviedo is perhaps most easily reached by air, with several airlines offering cheap flights from London. However, the most obvious way may not be the most enjoyable. Besides the option of driving through France, there’s the more leisurely one from Britain of taking the Brittany Ferries twice-weekly ferry from Plymouth to Santander. From there Oviedo can be reached quickly and along good roads, and there’s a frequent bus service from Santander.
Surely much better, though, is to take the time to enjoy the varied delights of the surrounding area, as I did on a visit to Oviedo in April 2007. Asturias is part of Green Spain, with a coastline blessed with sandy beaches (of which the Playa de Rodiles particularly captured the attention) and attractive fishing ports – such as Tazones. Behind are rolling hills and extensive farmland, as well as a substantial proportion of the Picos de Europa, a mountain range that reaches as high as 2,648 metres and offers rich opportunity for sightseeing, climbing and walking. Walks along the Cares Gorge, which splits the mountain range from north to south, and from the upper station of the Fuente Dé cable-car to the lower one via Espinama, proved especially rewarding. Amongst views attainable by car, it must be difficult to beat the 360º panorama to coast and mountains from the Mirador del Fito, between Arriondas and Colunga. There are regional gastronomic delights, too, and the menú del día at the hotel/restaurant Los Robles in Cangas de Onís left an especial sense of fulfilment.
Oviedo’s Teatro Campoamor is an imposing building in a prominent position (something the Teatro de la Zarzuela cannot boast!), looking out onto the Plaza de la Escandelera at an extremity of the main shopping area. The theatre takes its name from the Asturian poet Ramón de Campoamor (1817-1901), whose statue can be found on the theatre’s Grand Tier. The building opened in 1892 with a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and flourished until 1934, when it was partially destroyed in the revolution and subsequent Civil War. Restored, it reopened in 1948 with Massenet’s Manon, featuring Victoria de los Angeles and Manuel Ausensi. Built to classic horse-shoe design, it offers comfortable seating and excellent sight-lines, and is conspicuously well maintained. Its extensive and varied programme includes opera, plays and much else.
In 2007 the Festival Lírico reached its fourteenth season. It offered four performances each of some half-dozen zarzuela offerings, divided between locally originated fare and Teatro de la Zarzuela productions with Madrid soloists supported by the City of Oviedo Coro Capilla Polifónica and Orquesta Sinfónica. In the latter category the 2007 are double bills of La boda and El baile de Luis Alonso (February 2007) and El barbero de Sevilla and Bohemios (April 2007), plus the full-length El Rey que rabió (June 2007). Completely home-grown fare comprises a new production of Marina (March 2007) and a revival of an Antología Asturiana de zarzuela (May 2007), with a further new production of Los gavilanes promised for July 2007. Premièred at the Teatro Campoamor in July 2006, the Antología offers some mouth-watering rarities, among them excerpts from Chueca’s La caza del oso (1891), Bretón’s Covadonga (1901), Caballero’s El abuelito (1904), Luna’s La pícara molinera (1928), Torroba’s Xuanón (1933) and Romo’s El gaitero de Gijón (1953).
The performance I attended on 27 April was the double-bill of El barbero de Sevilla and Bohemios – two works sharing the same librettists and an operatic theme – that was premièred at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in February 2007. Other than Albert Montserrat instead of Ángel Rodriguez as Roberto in Bohemios, and Luis Remartínez in the pit in place of Maestro Roa, it offered the team of the Madrid performance reviewed by Christopher Webber. Apart from praising Luis Perezagua’s blustering (and philandering) father in El barbero de Sevilla, anything more than summary comment of the performers would thus be superfluous.
Of the two works, Bohemios is, of course, well known on CD for its excellent score, and like Christopher Webber I found that the celebrated intermedio came across poorly in the theatre. Moreover, placing it between the first two scenes – and thus immediately before the coro de bohemios – seemed to me to unbalance the musical numbers. It was gratifying, though, to see how well the book of Perrín and Palacios unfolds, evoking the atmosphere of Puccini’s (and Murger’s) Paris but with a quite separate character of its own.
The real revelation was El barbero de Sevilla. For all the popularity of its polonesa, the score overall hardly matches Bohemios. Moreover, the fact that the only available recording includes dialogue is a mixed blessing for a non-Spanish speaker. To see the piece on stage in a sympathetic production such as this thus revealed the piece in an unexpectedly bright light. The extensive operatic references (highlighted by the Spanish surtitles for the musical numbers) represent a particular joy for operatic buffs. However, the strongest attribute must surely be the skill with which Perrín and Palacios build up to a final scene in which characters move between three theatre dressing-rooms to set up a frantic Feydeauesque climax.
Altogether a visit to Oviedo – and to Asturias as a whole – should be a part of any zarzuela lover’s education. Details of the current programme can be found (in Spanish only) at Oviedo's website, with booking options (again in Spanish only) at CajAstur. Tickets for the following season go on sale in January and apparently sell out quickly. On any visit to the theatre, incidentally, don’t omit to cross the road for a drink at El Teatrillo, whose walls are lined with all manner of Spanish theatrical memorabilia, the photographs including – incongruously – one of Eugene Stratton, creator of Leslie Stuart “coon” songs.
Text and photos © Andrew Lamb 2007