Forgotten zarzuelas
Manuel Fernández Caballero
at the centenary of his death

Château Margaux
(Text: José Jackson Veyán)
La gallina ciega
(Text: Miguel Ramos Carrión)

Ópera Cómica de Madrid

Centro Cultural Conde Duque
11th March 2006

Enrique Mejías García

Tomas Saavedra Barrera
Manuel Fernández Caballero

We can say without fear of contradiction, that the time has come for us to begin to revise – to revolutionize, if you like – our understanding of the term zarzuela. What exactly has changed? No doubt something has; and the public funding bodies should have a strong commitment to the lyric genre which defines the immense panorama of Spanish art music, a genre whose infinite beauties we have yet to rediscover. Zarzuela is not a problematic form – on the contrary, it offers manifold possibilities for artistic exploration – and we should understand it as being the rich terra firma upon which we build with iron foundations the true pavilion of Spanish music. So when Ópera Cómica de Madrid reappears at the Centro Cultural del Conde Duque for a second season of Forgotten Zarzuelas, it must be reported at least with interest... and with enthusiasm, where the results are as satisfactory as here.

The trajectory that Ópera Cómica de Madrid has followed over the last few years can only be described as unique; for no other private company invests so much as they in zarzuela, or at so high an artistic level. Combining traditional repertoire with revivals of forgotten works, they put together thoughtful programmes, usually also accompanied by innovative stagings that – with few exceptions – usually meet the approval of both critics and public. They have had successes with Barbieri's Mis dos mujeres, Barrera's Emigrantes and La señora capitana, and most recently El relámpago, likewise by the brilliant Francisco Asenjo. Meanwhile in parallel the performance space of the Conde Duque has seen them mount similar productions, though usually only with piano accompaniment or – as in the case of El conjuro / Buenas noches Señor Don Simón – accompanied by piano sextet and in a minimal, although effective staging.

In order to commemorate the centenary of Manuel Fernández Caballero's death (in Madrid on that sad day of 26 February 1906) this time they offered to their Madrid audience an extremely tasty double bill of fare, combining the popular Château Margaux with the rare La gallina ciega [ed. "Blind Hen", the game known to us as "Blind Man's Buff"] specially disinterred and dusted down for the occasion. These two are yoked together as the latest recital-production in the aforementioned season of Forgotten Zarzuelas.

Of the Château we can say little more than what everybody already knows, namely that this is one of the zarzuelitas of the first golden decade of the género chico, the 1880's, that survives in the repertoire – although nowadays one imagines only tenuously, and with companies prepared to risk infrequently seen pieces, rather than those tried and tested in theatres around the country. Ópera Cómica de Madrid chose Sonia de Munck's suitable soprano for the role of Angelita, and she was given a really gratifying ovation by the audience for her coplas, and for the immortal vals de la borrachera. Style and elegance were patent in all her singing, and demonstrated once again that she is an excellent light lyric soprano for roles such as this, or the ones she played in Mis dos mujeres and El relámpago. Opposite her in the role of the servant José was Emilio Sánchez, all affability and matchless comicality, bringing capricious humour to his part in the dúo with its javeras and panaderos rhythms. In this, the final number of the delicious light comedy devised by Jackson Veyán, Sonia de Munck also delivered her high coloratura line most accurately, whilst singing the more long-breathed “Yo quiero a un torero” with surprising character.

La gallina ciega is a very different matter... Premiered in 1873 at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, it is a work halfway between romantic zarzuela grande and the more French-inspired opereta bufa. In the light of this it's impossible to hear its music without recalling the Offenbach of La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, or the contemporary zarzuelas bufas of Arderius, the impresario singer/writer who during the previous decade had presented in Madrid such derivative subjects as El joven Telémaco, Robinson and El Potosí submarino. The musical score of La gallina ciega surpasses many others, both in wit and beauty. This is apparent from the first dúo for tiple (soprano) and tenor, comparable in grace to the dúo de tiples from Los sobrinos del Capitán Grant, and the dúo-habanera which follows. Incidentally, Pablo Sarasate took this theme from La gallina ciega for his Habanera op.2. The score continues with the exquisite, Rossini-like quartet “de los idiomas”, where the four characters simultaneously sing to polka and tirana rhythms in four different languages! A canción for tiple that prefigures the well-known one from El cabo primero, a terceto which for all the world parodies the mad scene of Linda de Chamounix (with whom O, the protagonist of the zarzuela, is obsessed) ... one number after another, provoking open joy from an audience which found itself wondering how so flavoursome a work could have been forgotten in the archives.

The interpretation was equally splendid, the performers called upon to encore the quartet. The bravos were much more wholehearted that we're used to in recitals of this kind, and there were even some excitedly spontaneous cries of “Don't go, keep singing!”. As O, Sonia de Munck equalled her work in Château Margaux; likewise Emilio Sanchez as Serafín, the violinist of the Circo de Paul. Luis Cansino was a sensational Cleto, in beautifully modulated voice where he needed to be, so marvellous on stage that there were moments where we could forget that we were essentially watching a concert version. The habanera was characterfully and liltingly sung by Carmelo Cordón as Venancio; Ana Martínez, to her credit, revealed a mezzo of delicate and beautiful timbre, her deep register very well produced in the lower depths of the small role of Cincuncición.

We could not have asked for more from this evening at the Conde Duque. We can only hope that the artists of Ópera Cómica de Madrid return swiftly for a possible third season of Forgotten Zarzuelas; and, with any luck, that this recital has been a proving ground for La gallina ciega (as it was for El relámpago) whom we would like to see very soon, clucking in her full, scenic plumage.

© Enrique Mejías García 2006

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Manuel Fernández Caballero
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