Harry Fragson, star of the London version of La Gran Via
Harry Fragson, star of the London version of La Gran Via

Zarzuela Britannica
by Andrew Lamb

They say that zarzuela doesn’t translate, and perhaps they’re right. The musical style, characters, situations, dialogue and references are often so peculiarly Spanish that stage performances can really be enjoyed only by native Spaniards or foreigners with a good understanding of the language and culture. Yet so irresistibly passionate, bright, colourful and tuneful is the music that efforts go on to spread the pleasure of its riches.

The few attempts to adapt zarzuelas for the British stage have had no major success. Just as selected music from HMS Pinafore was attached to a totally new Spanish book for a piece entitled Ensayo generál (‘General Rehearsal’) at Madrid’s Teatro Apolo in 1887, so musical numbers from Chueca’s and Valverde’s La Gran Vía were used for the musical Castles in Spain, first produced at the Royalty Theatre on 18 April 1906. The rest of the score was by the show’s star, Anglo-French variety performer and songwriter Harry Fragson, composer of the very un-Spanish ‘Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend?’. The story of the London show had absolutely nothing to do with the original - a tale of an American schoolgirl who makes an innocent visit to the apartment of a French count, becomes involved in recovering a bundle of compromising letters from a Spanish singer, and ends up marrying him. The show was well received, but was denied a longer run when Fragson’s co-star was snapped up for another show.

Seemingly the only reasonably faithful professional production of a zarzuela in English in Britain was an adaptation of Pablo Luna’s 1916 tale of the 1001 Nights El asombro de Damasco (‘The Terror of Damascus’) as The First Kiss, produced at the New Oxford Theatre, London, on 10 November 1924 with a cast that included Désirée Ellinger and Courtice Pounds. It managed no more than 43 performances.

A more widely disseminated English-language zarzuela production was a version of Barbieri’s classic El barberillo de Lavapiés made by Geoffrey Dunn for the BBC in the 1950s. This was broadcast in 1954 with Bruce Boyce as Lamparilla, Maria Perilli as La Paloma, Thomas Round as Don Luis, Ian Wallace as Don Juan and Marjorie Westbrook as the Marquesita. It was a broadcast that completely bowled over the present writer and provided the basis of an abiding love of zarzuela. That same Dunn version, with score reorchestrated by Roberto Gerhard, was also done again less successfully for another broadcast on Christmas Day 1969. It had also received an amateur staging earlier the same year by the BBC Club Operatic Society at the Commonwealth Institute.

Other missionary attempts to spread the joy of zarzuela over the air-waves have included more than one programme of excerpts by Noel Goodwin in the early-1960s, and a programme of specially performed numbers conducted and introduced by Lionel Salter in 1981. In February 1975 there was also a relay of La Dolores direct from the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona, and in 1984 a relay of an Austrian Radio recital featuring Plácido Domingo. In London’s concert halls there have been periodic zarzuela recitals by the likes of Montserrat Caballé and Plácido Domingo. More adventurously, the Edinburgh Festival has over the years imported two Spanish zarzuela productions wholesale in the form of Moreno Torroba’s La chulapona in 1989 and Bretón’s La verbena de la Paloma in 1997. Potentially the most highly geared to appeal to the widest possible audience have been the glorious stagings of musical highlights in José Tamayo’s Antología de la Zarzuela at the Apollo, Hammersmith in 1985, and at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1989.

Too often, alas, the best of intentions have been defeated by the difficulties of the Spanish idiom or a seeming reluctance by the Spanish to share their glorious heritage. To be sure the Spanish were not to blame for the performer playing Lamparilla in the 1969 BBC Club Operatic Society production of The Little Barber of Lavapiés forgetting to take off his reading glasses before coming on stage; but that same amateur production broke down completely at one point because of the difficulties of the Spanish rhythms. Similarly embarrassing was the 1975 relay of La Dolores from Barcelona, when the intervals stretched on interminably, leaving a BBC announcer in a London studio desperately trying to fill in without having a clue as to what was going on at the other end of the line. Even the Antología de la Zarzuela stagings at the Apollo, Hammersmith were spoilt by the failure to provide anything in the way of a printed programme to help the audience’s appreciation. Perhaps the extra advocacy behind the series of zarzuela events in London during the spring and summer of 1999 will help disseminate a little further the endless joys of that all too little appreciated genre of the zarzuela.

© Andrew Lamb 1999
reprinted with permission

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