Gigantes y Cabezudos
and La viejecita

Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid
to 29th November 1998

A Caballero double bill? Very much central repertoire for the spiritual home of the zarzuela, you might think. Yes, indeed. But the director of this new production, mounted to commemorate the Centenary of Gigantes y Cabezudos on 29th November, takes the bold step of inserting La viejecita after just one scene of the better-known piece.

Film director José Luis García Sánchez doesn't cross cut further between the two. Rather he attempts to bind the wound with an apologetic narrator, dressed as a Caballero lookalike, who gives us a gently serious lecture on the early history of Spanish ciniematography. After the first scene of Gigantes, we are shown powerful archival footage of soldiers departing for the American War in 1897, and told that early film audiences much preferred to watch romantic dramas about the War of Independence. Cue the Napoleonic farce of La viejecita. After the happy conclusion of which, back to the return of the defeated soldiers from Cuba and the conclusion of Gigantes.

Well, why not? Such distancing doesn't harm the simple strength of Pilar's story, and the impact of the Chorus of Repatriated Soldiers is if anything deepened by following on from the military high jinks of La viejecita. We're also forcibly reminded that there is only a year between the realistic drama of Gigantes, and the tongue-in-cheek mannerism of the slighter piece. All of which leaves us with a wholesome sense of the composer's emotional, musical and theatrical range.

Nor does the cinematic frame do much to disguise the sterling, essentially traditional theatrical virtues of the production, which is notably well designed, well sung and well acted. Moods and settings, Zaragoza marketplace, Grand Empire Salon or whatever, are atmospherically defined, the stagecraft is generally unobtrusively and uniformly effective.

All the principals are good, some are outstanding. Though María Mandizábal's Pilar is not dramatically involving enough, she sings the incomparable Romanza very securely. Doyen Rafael Castejón occasionally looks as if 48 years in the business are about enough, sleepwalking his way through the Marqués in La Viejicita - though his Timoteo is better finessed.

Indeed, most of the Castejón family is in evidence on stage or off, with mater familias Pepa Rosado battering her way vigorously through Antonia in Gigantes. Younger son Rafa does double duty as a nicely understated Pascual in Gigantes and a lithe, louche Fernando in La viejecita, where elder son Jesús takes the rewarding central role of Carlos.

This is the "Charley's Aunt" part - La viejecita ('The Old Lady') surely took wing from Brandon Thomas's hugely popular farce of 1892 - and Jesús Castejón plays her/him with just the right mix of subtle elegance and cheap vulgarity. The Minuet, neatly pointed up by choreographer Nuria Castejón (yes, another one!) is a delectable mix of deadpan musical mock-classicism and farcical gags for 'Doña Teresa' and her male admirers. The role was originally played by a soprano (and is sung by one in the available recordings) but the substitution of a tenor does no musical violence. The theatrical gains are huge, and are in very sure hands here.

The orchestral playing under Miguel Roa is outstanding, musical preparation impressively secure throughout. The Chorus must be singled out for special praise - the marketwomen of Gigantes, the soldiers (Napoleonic gallants or raggle-taggle repatriados), convince as individual characters as well as impressing as a vocal unit.

This is a stirring evening, well worthy of the occasion. Gigantes y Cabezudos is one of the greatest works in the repertoire, and the genteel farce of La viejecita proves an admirably funny foil to the Centenary work's potent mixture of popular dance and poignant drama.

© Christopher Webber 1998

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