An Evening of Zarzuela

Barbican Hall, London
25th April 1999

Plácido Domingo (tenor),
Ainhoa Arteta (soprano), Cecilia Díaz (mezzo-soprano)
Royal Opera House Orchestra
Miguel Roa (conductor)

There's a theory that it doesn't travel well - like an exotic foodstuff. Even the Spanish sometimes subscribe to this notion, as Christopher Webber pointed out in his excellent programme notes. Or perhaps it's the name - Zarzuela - that causes the problem. It's hard for us foreigners to pronounce and it doesn't sound like a musical genre. Then there's the difficulty with categorisation. Is it like Gilbert and Sullivan? Viennese operetta? No to both questions. It's like itself and needs to be heard, not described - preferably in theatrical production.

Failing that, last Sunday's concert performance at the Barbican could hardly have been bettered as an introduction. It helped that Plácido Domingo was the main attraction. He could, of course, fill any venue just by gargling. And it's hard to avoid the suspicion that it was Domingo the locals in the sell-out audience had come to hear, rather than zarzuela. But be that as it may, the music was received with genuine and increasing enthusiasm - and let's hope that there'll be future presentations to keep the interest alive. The programme was well chosen (though we'll all have regrets that such-and-such wasn't included), featuring extracts from the works of nine or so of the most accomplished zarzuela composers. The ROH orchestra responded brilliantly to the sometimes unfamiliar melodic and rhythmic patterns, directed flamboyantly by Miguel Roa, whose coaxing out of the subtleties of the music was a highlight of the evening. A furious riot of a performance of Giménez's Intermedio from La Boda de Luis Alsonso stays in the memory.

Domingo himself was in magnificent voice and was quite clearly having the time of his life. (As you do if you get to sing both Javier and Vidal during the same performance.) The aria from Maravilla was wonderfully - and shamelessly - played to the gallery, who responded rapturously. And then, during the encores, he turned expectations upside down by singing tenderly (with Cecilia Díaz) the Duo de Luisa Fernanda y Javier (which he dedicated to his parents). Where was that big final note? Well, it came a few minutes later, with Penella's ¡Si! Torero quiero sé (with Ainhoa Arteta).

Arteta is sometimes dismissed on the grounds that her voice isn't as spectacular as her looks. Which is a bit unfair. Her opening aria, Guridi's beautiful Romanza from Mirentxu (which she's recorded on the RTVE label), was a delight - as was her Chapí encore: the voice will always be light but she sang with feeling and musicianship. (And, yes, she did look gorgeous.)

Cecilia Díaz began hesitantly, with Domingo, in Escúchame (Doña Francisquita). As the evening progressed, however, her voice began to round out and by the time we got to the Chapí aria (El barquerillo) and the duet from Serrano's La Dolorosa, the tone had become more smokily seductive. The sterile ambiance of the Barbican doesn't help the singers (unless, like Domingo, you can throw your voice anywhere). Both Arteta and Díaz were occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. A critic wrote on Tuesday that zarzuela should not be performed in concert halls. What you need, he wrote, is a vaudeville theatre with a pit band. Wrong. You need the best singers, a first-class orchestra and conductor. Well, we pretty much had these on Sunday. More zarzuela to come at the Bloomsbury....

© Michael James 1999

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