La Gran Via (Opera Comica de Madrid 2006)
La Gran Vía (Opera Cómica de Madrid, 2006)

Ópera Cómica de Madrid

Centro Cultural de la Villa
(21 May & 3 June 2006)

Ignacio Jassa Haro / Christopher Webber

La Gran Vía

Jugar con fuego

La Gran Vía (IJH)

It’s always a great joy to see so substantial a theatrical and musical work as La Gran Vía in performance. This “comical-lyrical fantastical-streetwise” one-act revue has had a busy life since its 1886 premiere, as is borne out by the fact that 120 years later two stagings have appeared on the city’s radar almost simultaneously. One was in pop-rock style, promoted by the City Council in the Plaza Mayor for a largely young audience of thousands, which by putting modern technology at the service of respect for the original work proved well able to hold the interest of a new public; the one reviewed here was produced by Ópera Cómica de Madrid, as a part of their Spring zarzuela mini-season.

Whether Francisco Matilla and Fernando Pobrete’s company pursues less-trodden paths or tackles more familiar repertory works, it always does so with a mother’s care towards these often maltreated works, full worthy of praise. It might be objected that La Gran Vía is no rara avis, certainly; but to come up with a staging including a great number of the additional scenes created for this zarzuela during its life down to the present time, is quite another thing. The inclusion of musical numbers such as the vals del juego; the pasodoble de los sargentos; the dúo de la gomosa y el sietemesino; the intermedio that caps the escena de los yernos; and the concluding potpourri-apotheosis – all gleaned from ICCMU’s critical edition edited by María Encina Cortizo and Ramón Sobrino – makes this production of La Gran Vía highly unusual.

And fittingly for a production outside the norm it has been given an atypical setting. Its aesthetic is defined by massive stylisation, eschewing those madrileño cliches of the zarzuela genre so worn away by abuse, approaching at times the visual appearance of revue (19th Music Hall, not 20th century) and at others the Theatre of the Absurd, but always serving the drama with huge honesty. Still, the decision to include so many numbers never conceived to be performed together transforms the little work into a two-act epic, with a consequent loss of dramatic density and eloquent concision – a case not unlike Sergio Renán’s staging of La verbena de la Paloma last Christmas at the Teatro de la Zarzuela.

La Gran Via (Opera Comica de Madrid 2006)

As for the performers, I have to report a distinct unevenness. Miguel Sola is a complete Caballero de Gracia [ed. “Graceful Gentleman”] full of that very quality in his singing, exhibited not only in his famous vals but also in the vals del juego and the dialogue. El paseante, a spoken role with a few sung phrases, is taken by the talented Ángel Walter who declaims Felipe Pérez y González’s verse with great, natural fluidity. Thais de la Guerra makes for a graceful Menegilda; nevertheless, vocal strain throughout the week prevented her from sounding comfortable and left her tango rather dull. Watching a performer scoring a palpable hit with the public is always fascinating: seeing it happen with the actress Carmen Rossi in the delectable role of Doña Virtudes was specially remarkable. In spite of the massive problems she had singing her retort to La Menegilda in tune and in tempo – let alone keeping time with the band – her stylish wit and extraordinarily clear diction produced spontaneous applause before she’d even finished her first verse. The last performer to get onstage, Francesca Calero, brought her naturally elegant bearing to Elíseo madrileño’s chotis, ensuring a brilliant end to the revue.

The rest of the cast shared the many spoken or sung roles included in this staging; the affectionate histrionics of Juan Manuel Cifuentes as niño, comadrón and rata amongst a long list of other roles, and the surrealistic touch of Carmen Arribas as Luz eléctrica, Fuente and Calle de Sevilla stand out, from another endless list. Carlos Cuesta chose to conduct the Ensamble Instrumental de Madrid and Ópera Cómica Chorus not only with swift tempi but also with charm and feeling. As for Francisco Matilla’s direction, its great clarity and concision was tempered only by some inadequate verse work with the actors, which sometimes made understanding the spoken dialogue difficult. Eclectic choreography well integrated with the music, and minimal but very beautiful stage settings and lighting completed a satisfying staging that not everyone who filled the Sala Guirau at the Centro Cultural de la Villa properly appreciated – perhaps wrongly thinking they were hearing a “modernisation” of the original 1887 dialogue and music. Yet once again Ópera Cómica has made us dream of what the Teatro Felipe or Teatro Apolo might have been like on an opening night, and that is a gift beyond price.

La Gran Vía. Music: Federico Chueca y Joaquín Valverde. Text: Felipe Pérez y González. Madrid, Centro Cultural de la Villa, 3 June 2006. Cast: Miguel Sola (El Caballero de Gracia); Ángel Walter (Un paseante en corte); Thais de la Guerra (La Menegilda); Carmen Rossi (Doña Virtudes); Francesca Calero (El Elíseo madrileño); Juan Manuel Cifuentes (Comadrón, Barrio del Pacífico, Gas, Paleto, Rata primero y niño); Javier Ibarz (Barrio de la Prosperidad, Petróleo, Húsar, Dependiente 3, Rata tercero); Carmen Arribas (Calle de Sevilla, Barrio de las Injurias, Luz eléctrica, Fuente, Taurina, Zurda, Dependienta 1); Coro de Ópera Cómica de Madrid (d. Carlos Pinzón Riveros); Ensamble Instrumental de Madrid; Mariana Mara (costumes); Marco Berriel (choreography); Pedro Pablo Melendo (lighting); Francisco Matilla (d.); Carlos Cuesta (c.) New production by Ópera Cómica de Madrid

Jugar con fuego (CW)

A crucial breakthrough for zarzuela and the young Barbieri in 1851, this scintillating three-act comedy was also to prove a watershed for Ópera Cómica. Although founded in 1985, it was the 1992 Teatro de Madrid Jugar con fuego which really put the young company on the map. After two pleasant, relatively easy-paced acts of romantic comedy opera, owing as much to Scribe’s French dramaturgy as to Italian musical forms, the compacted third act finds us behind bars in a Madrid Madhouse. Barbieri and Ventura de la Vega explored this Jacobean ground with a manic zest which remains as disturbing as it is funny, unlocking something new in the process. It’s no coincidence that the most original and high quality music – the ensembles with the lunatics and the Duquesa’s famous bolero“Un tiempo fue” ­– is here. Director Francisco Matilla likewise reserved his best theatrical strokes for that final act, with its stark rows of iron bars covered in clambering lunatics extended right across the stage. After two acts of blandly conventional staging, suddenly we too are in deranged territory, a roller-coaster ride as exhilarating as it is unsettling. This is what theatre should be about, and so often isn’t.

Jugar con fuego (Opera Comica de Madrid)

So this revised revival provides much pleasure, at the same time as it reminds us how far Matilla’s work has developed over the last 15 years. If his inventive stagecraft has bloomed, what’s consistent is the degree to which he is able to motivate his ensemble so well in everything they do, so that even a less than natural actor – such as the under-confident Francisco Heredia as Félix, more distinctive in attractively pastel vocal than stage personality – stays plausibly within the role. If Luis Álvarez in that most tempting role of the naughty Marquis who gets his comeuppance at the hands of the madmen plays safe, his virtue is to forbear overplaying his hand to the detriment of the drama as a whole. Thus, the centre holds. That centre – the wilful Duquesa determined to get her own way and marry the man of her heart despite everyone’s plots to the contrary – is equally well taken by Francesco Calero, vocally warm and dramatically focussed.

Javier Ferrer takes the eye and ear as Antonio, Horatio to Félix’s Hamlet; whilst Ángel Walter sets the tone for that late change of theatrical gear with a leering, perverse Madhouse Keeper as startlingly droll as he is politically incorrect. Unlike the sometimes poorly balanced chorus, the Ensamble de Madrid is steady as a rock, with notably good woodwind contributions. The great thing about Carlos Cuesta is how infrequently one is aware of him: in other words, tempi are natural and unforced, vocal ensemble is accurate and the ship sails on. A never less than enjoyable evening became, in that moonstruck final act, something much more stirring.

Jugar con fuego. Music: Francisco Asenjo Barbieri. Text: Ventura de la Vega. Madrid, Centro Cultural de la Villa, 21 May 2006. Cast: Duquesa – Francesca Calero; Félix – Francisco Heredia; Marqués – Luis Álvarez; Duque – Miguel López Galindo; Antonio – Javier Ferrer; Condesa – Blanca Ortiz; Loquero – Ángel Walter; Coro de Ópera Cómica de Madrid (d. Carlos Pinzón Riveros); Ensamble Instrumental de Madrid; d. Franciso Matilla; c. Carlos Cuesta

© Ignacio Jassa Haro and Christopher Webber 2006

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