Three picaresque sainetes by Barbieri

El hombre es débil
(Text: Mariano Pina Bohigas)
Los dos ciegos
(Text: Luis de Olona)
El niño
(Text: Mariano Pina Bohigas)

Ópera Cómica de Madrid
Teatro del Bosque,
Móstoles (Madrid)

25th September 2004

Ignacio Jassa Haro

Tomas Saavedra Barrera
Francisco Asenjo Barbieri

These "picaresque sainetes" were premiered together in 2001, at the 50th Granada International Festival of Music and Dance. They've been revived at the Teatro del Bosque in Móstoles, a township to the south of Madrid which has focussed its cultural life on this theatre space since its recent opening. Going back just a year the present company, in coproduction with the theatre, presented a beautiful production of Mis dos mujeres (zarzuela grande by Barbieri and Olona) which has been doubly covered on in reviews of the DVD recording and live stage production. As for the new production we should note that this is a music theatre staging well adapted to current production standards, but with one warning - through necessity the instrumental quota was not a full orchestra but a small chamber group.

This certainly follows the custom, well established throughout the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, of making transcriptions of famous works for varied instrumental and/or vocal forces. Thus it was perfectly possible to hear any great musical success reproduced here or there in reductions for voice and keyboard, in the street on barrel organs, or as chamber music in fashionable salons. Thus sanctioned by custom, intimate treatment of these sainetes is not ridiculous; and aside from such intellectual justifications it must be admitted that these precious musical miniatures find a perfect means of expression through the intimacy of the string sextet with piano. Yet notwithstanding the aesthetic success of this minimalist approach, we can still feel some regret at not being able to appreciate the original colours of Barbieri's orchestration.

The chosen instrumental formula allowed performers and musicians to appear together on the stage, which lent special enchantment to proceedings. The instrumentalists - placed to the left - were lit only when they played, with the stage darkened for spoken dialogue. In spite of its simplicity and compactness the stage setting occupied two thirds of the space, beautifully framing the three Barbieri pieces. Furnishings, costume and lighting evoked a visual tone that effectively recreated an atmosphere well within the spirit of their urban, petit-bourgeois ambience.

The evening opened with El hombre es débil ("The Weak Man"), the most recent chronologically - it was premiered in 1871 - but probably the one which has aged most. This is the source of the habanera "Te llevaré a Puerto Rico..." later taken up by the celebrated violinist Pablo Sarasate who used it as the basis of his own Habanera. This little work revolves around a love triangle formed by the young maidservant Tecla, with her master Luciano - and Pascual, another of his servants. The master, married and very straight-laced, is seduced by Tecla but resigns his impossible love and decides to give a dowry to the girl which enables her to marry Pascual. There's a degree of modernity in its criticism of the double standards of a society which observes moral forms whilst undercutting them for its own ends.

Next came Los dos ciegos ("Two Blind Men"), oldest of the three (1855). This sainete is a topical divertissement that connects with audiences through reference to one of the great subjects of our Golden Age: the picaresque. Francisco Matilla adapted Luis de Olona's original text in which two pretended blind beggars argue over "client rights" to several parts of Madrid, finally appearing as artistic representatives of "disabled street performers" who exchange rivalry for coordinated team work.

The programme closed with El niño ("The Baby",) from almost equally early in Barbieri's career (1859.) It presents an untangled tale full of life, and worked especially well in this staging. A woman caught in a marriage of convenience with a Portuguese Baron dreams about finding the good looking officer who was with her father on his deathbed. It was to this young man that the dying old man gave his cigar-case as a symbol of the proffered hand of his daughter. After many months the officer failed to show up and the girl ended by marrying the Portuguese nobleman. The story introduces us to a young n'er do well, Felix, who although he won the case from the military man in a game of cards is ignorant of its meaning, and has inveigled himself into the Baron's house to lighten the opulent gentry of some of their monetary load. When the baroness discovers the case she makes an emotional plea to the man whom her father had as she believes destined to be her husband. Whilst they are talking the Baron arrives and Felix hides himself in the cradle of the married pair's baby son, thus generating all kinds of farcical situations. In the end the moral disorder is fixed by the intercession of Paca, the maidservant, who delightedly gives an alibi to the young man by claiming that he is her fiance come to visit her.

In spite of its early date El niño's theatrical and musical character stands closer to género chico zarzuela than El hombre es débil, which has much stronger roots in tonadilla. But in any case it must be stressed that as much these two chico works of Barbieri, like Los dos ciegos, are more related to the great tradition of the Spanish teatro breve (from the entremés to the tonadilla escénica) than to the theatrical genre invented in 1868 by Vallés, Luján and Riquelme and later immortalised by Chueca and Co. As for the music, Barbieri presents three simple scores full of dance rhythms and catchy tunes in a series of numbers approximating to the cuplé or canción traditions. Nevertheless some numbers are more intrinsic to the action of the sainete and have remarkable dramatic value.

Four fine performers shared the solo roles. The quick-witted direction of Francisco Matilla made all of them seem ideal interpreters. Ricardo Muñiz showed great versatility in breathing life into the worthy Luciano, the "weak man" of the first sainete; the shady Jeremías, one of two "blind men"; and the ardent Felix, trying to pass as "the baby" of the baronial couple. In this last sainete his superb scene at the cradle, with Francisco Matilla, was specially funny.

For although the baritone Carmelo Cordón was billed, in the end it was Matilla himself who took over his line of parts, playing the rustic servant in El hombre es débil; the street musician Roberto (second of the two "blind men";) and the Portuguese father of "the baby". We need only say of him that he is the soul of these revivals! Matilla lives these works as his own, and in fact that is what they are - as adapter he is co-author of the texts.

Ruth Delaria made two appearances similar in style and effect. In El hombre es débil she embodied Tecla, the young maid who wakes the passion of master and servant, deliciously. Her assumption in El niño, the similarly-employed Paca, "clever servant" to the baroness and instigator of the happy ending, was if possible even more perfect.

Mar Abascal, the last of the quartet of protagonists, had two parts of very unequal importance. If in El niño she showed her natural elegance in the role of the baroness, in Los dos ciegos she found herself in a supernumerary role that did not figure in the original but had been written in by Matilla to add sparkle to the finale.

As for the orchestral accompaniment, suffice it to say that the Ensamble Instrumental de Madrid played with a delectable spirit of the time. Again, conductor Fernando Poblete obtained a subtle reading of the score that gives pause for thought about the habitual playing of our orchestras.

We have in these three picaresque sainetes yet another demonstration of what it's possible to do for zarzuela with limited resources, made the most of through a little imagination and - above all - much love for the genre.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro, 2004

Cast: El hombre es débil: Ricardo Muñiz (Luciano); Francisco Matilla (Pascual); Ruth Delaria (Tecla). Los dos ciegos: Ricardo Muñiz (Jeremías); Francisco Matilla (Roberto); Mar Abascal (Un maja de rumbo). El niño: Ricardo Muñiz (Félix); Francisco Matilla (El barón); Ruth Delaria (Paca); Mar Abascal (La baronesa). Ensamble Instrumental de Madrid; Fernando Poblete (musical Direction); Francisco Matilla (Adaptation of the text and direction of scene); Mariana Maza (Figurines); Production of Ópera Cómica de Madrid

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