I’ve attended my share of Teatro de la Zarzuela ‘first nights’, and frankly doubted that the special atmosphere of eager anticipation (latterly seasoned by a sprinkling of dread) could be caught in Facebook Live streaming. Wrong! Following a warm welcome from the theatre’s director Daniel Bianco – the designer of this Katiuska – and brief introductions to the operetta-zarzuela by the director, conductor and three stars of the show, we were left to quietly settle into our armchairs, with leisurely panning shots of the auditorium and audience unadulterated by further chit-chat.
Once the lights dimmed, video direction was unobtrusive (largely following the shooting script for the DVD released after the production’s Bilbao premiere ten years ago) and technical standards were excellent. Apart from a short loss of buffering, unfortunately right in the heart of the great dúo for the heroine and her Red Army lover – significantly perhaps at the very moment when online audiences were peeking at about 300,000 – the streaming was excellent, with HD visuals and clear if unspectacular audio. For most of the time I forgot I was watching a small computer screen and felt I was with my friends in Madrid. That made for a moving experience.
There is little point restating at length my thoughts on Emilio Sagi’s adaptation of Pablo Sorozábal’s first stage work. This was essentially the same production first seen in Bilbao a decade ago, with some theatrical tidying up, but the same large talking point as to whether the director’s liberal cutting of dialogue, removal of characters and simplification of the story is justified or not. My own judgement – contrary to my usual one – is that it is justified, both by the clever thematic integration of Sorozábal’s unforgettably tuneful score (very much his ‘calling card’ to show Spain what the young, virtuoso composer had learnt to do in Germany) and by Bianco’s settings, drawing as they do on searing, mixed images of squalid rubble and sequins which evoke every Civil War, be it Russian, Central American or Spanish. Within its skewed, gilt picture-frame this production is a magical triumph for image and music over word and plot. It can hardly be blamed for setting a trend which has had … let us just say, some unfortunate consequences.
Sagi’s removal of the interval and swathes of second-act verbiage (this is not one of the better zarzuela texts from the literary point of view) results in one, intense arc of music-theatre lasting a mere hour and twenty minutes. Yet it retains that essential ‘operetta-zarzuela’ feeling, in its brilliant juxtaposition of comedy and lyric melodrama. Take for instance the filmic cross-cut from the amusingly silly hand-dance of red plastic boots for Olga and the male chorus in “Ucranio de mi amor”, to the image of the sequined heroine lying on a ruined piano for her impossibly beautiful “Noche hermosa”, Sorozábal’s scoring evoking the scented, Russian moonlit summer night with breathtaking orchestral daring, and the rondalla doing duty for a thousand balalaikas. That is only one moment of audio-visual sublimity among many in this memorable staging.
As for the principals, the portrayals of Katiuska and her lover by Ainhoa Arteta and Carlos Álvarez were operatically generous in scale and feeling. Now in his fifties, Álvarez remains what he always was: a high-quality ‘international’ baritone of weighty, even and secure voice and solid (if somewhat generalised) theatrical presence. He conveyed Pedro Stakoff’s ‘love versus duty’ struggle clearly, and it was thrilling to hear the role sung with full, operatic heft: I was adding my own virtual cheers to the audience’s wildly rapturous reception following his “Calor de nido” and lusty “La mujer Rusa”, that genuine Russian folksong so memorably reset by the composer. Arteta no longer commands the silvery glory of her vocal prime, changed to a richer, more coppery instrument these days, not without some spreading of tone but still perfectly controlled in alt. Though she does some peculiar things with the text, her charismatic stage appeal is undimmed: there was no messing around in peasant dress for this Katiuska – the image of Arteta elegantly reclined in the rubble, her glittering silk gown and arctic fox fur sprinkled with snowflakes, will linger long in the memory.
Apart from Jorge de León’s bland Prince, the remainder of the cast were Zarzuela stalwarts. Emilio Sánchez and Enrique Baquerizo (Colonel Bruno in Bilbao) made what was left of innkeeper Boni and the Catalan stocking salesman Amadeo Pich seem more substantial than they’d been before, and it was a great pleasure to see Amelia Font returning to the theatre as a notably three-dimensional Tatiana. Antonio Torres was a younger Bruno than usual, exuding the appropriate sense of cavalier indigence and deploying his youthful bass pleasantly, while Milagros Martín’s familiar Olga continues to astonish with her energetic, communicative personality, though some of her ‘mugging’ doubtless worked better in the theatre than on the small screen.
The choral singing was superlative, the excellent orchestral playing did justice to Sorozábal’s wonderfully varied instrumentation. If conductor Guillermo García Calvo took the Boston Waltz and Foxtrot too fast, the same had been true of David Giménez Carreras in Bilbao: are the demands of Nuria Castejón’s no-nonsense choreography the tail wagging this particular dog? That aside, Calvo’s sense of momentum and tight direction came across very effectively in the streaming, which proved a memorable internet event in every way. I for am impressed and excited by the possibilities revealed.
© Christopher Webber and zarzuela.net, 2018