Milena Storti, Manuela Kuster - Il califfo di Bagdad

Manuel García • Andrea Leone Tottola
Il Califfo di Bagdad

Teatro de la Zarzuela
(Madrid, 26 June 2007)

Enrique Mejías García

Doubtless history has been unkind to many composers. As unkind to Manuel García , truly, as it has been to Joaquín Gaztambide, Cristóbal Oudrid or Rafael Calleja. Doubtless, yes. But there's one point which should be clarified. Manuel García has been stigmatized as the “lost link” between Mozart and Rossini, an intermediate stepping stone towards the “Rossini Style” (!!), and yesterday's Teatro de la Zarzuela offering was duly defined by critics and opera buffs as “ Rossinian ”. The reality is that by 1813, the date of the Naples premiere of Il Califfo di Bagdad , García had not yet had made contact with the genius of Pessaro. Nevertheless in Spain we have now discovered “our Rossini” and that we must look at what that means. For a start (why not?) we should maybe consider what is “ Garcinian ” in the Italian's work.

Il Califfo is a two-act opera buffa constructed from the libretto of a one-act opera comique by Boieldieu, Le Calife de Bagdad. As opera buffa goes the truth is that it is theatrically anodyne, full of predictable twists, and at every turn we perceive the hypertrophy of the single French act in the Neapolitan two. Spoken dialogue between numbers can, in a well-mounted staging, add a certain dynamism – provided the audience understands the language in which it's spoken, something which was not the case yesterday at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. We speak Italian in Madrid – only in the opera house, sure. But everybody knows now that “decent” Spanish opera as championed, published, recorded and publicly financed today, has to be sung in Italian. Carnicer, Martin y Soler, García … if it's called “opera” and in Italian, it will attract people like Christophe Rousset and organizations like the Patrimonio Nacional and Fundación Caja Madrid. Il Califfo di Bagdad, to our discredit, will be recorded for CD just like Carnicer's Il disoluto punito. Gaztambide can cry out his Juramento, Calleja stay amongst his Bribonas, and Oudrid remember his Molinero de Subiza only in dreams. My friends, why didn't you call these things operas instead of zarzuelas? Didn't you have any nose for commercial success?

Mother and daughter (Anna Chierichetti y Milena Storti) with the fake Caliph (Josť Manuel Zapata)

To be fair García's music has sufficient merits to justify its revival. Its clear orchestration, watertight technique and fresh melodies are calculated to entertain an audience and, what's more, to hold the attention in quite a few arias and ensembles through passages of devilish coloratura and moments of special inspiration. Gauging the originality and importance of a personality like his has to be a value judgment. A pity, whatever, that Olivier Simonnet's semi-staged production was inadequate and jarring for a space large as the theatre in Calle Jovellanos. I suppose that in the Carlos V Palace in Granada it would have seemed much more showily eloquent; but in Madrid, baldly speaking, is did not work.

Musically, Rousset directed with vivacity a Talens Lyriques that on more than one occasion did not manage to find the right sound needed for a work so precisely characterised, full of subtleties and in which the orchestra is almost a character itself. As for the singers, we had bel canto specialists of upper-middle capacity, who surmounted the complex score successfully. It would be unjust not to name them to all: Anna Chierichetti, a brilliant Zetulbé ; Milena Storti, a wonderful Lemède; José Manuel Zapata as Isauun, a role vocally anticipating Rossini's Almaviva in Il barbiere; Manuela Kuster, the fascinating Kesia; David Rubiera as Giudice, Mario Cassi as El Cadì (no, he is not the same one as in El asombro de Damasco) and Emiliano González Toro as Jelmaden. The Chorus of Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, likewise fulfilled its part with commendable dexterity – well done all!

© Enrique Mejías García 2007
translation © Christopher Webber 2007

Il Califfo di Bagdad Opera buffa in two acts Libretto: Andrea Leone Tottola, after Le califa de Bagdad by Claude Godard d'Aucourt de Saint-Just. Music: Manuel García.
Milena Storti - Lemède, Emiliano González Toro - Jelmaden, Manuela Kuster - Kesia, Anna Chierchetti - Zetulbè, José Manuel Zapata - Isauun, Mario Cassi - Cadè, David Rubiera - Giudice. Coro de la Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (c.), Olivier Simonnet (d.), José Enrique Oña Selfa (costumes), Alexis Kavyrchine (lighting)
Co-production by Festival Internacional de Música y Danza de Granada, and Fundación Caja Madrid

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