Two fine works misallied
It's four hundred years since the publication in Madrid of the first part of Don Quijote. The celibratory events take it all cultural genres, not least musical and theatrical. After a diligent search through Spain's music theatre heritage the temple of zarzuela has selected two contrasted one-act works out of which it has constructed a brilliant double bill.
The one and only "but" about this staging is the disparity between the works themselves. The zarzuela is eccentric of its kind, and the opera not less so. But the main point is that we are presented with two works of very different theatrical and musical quality. Whilst de Falla's opera can be accounted one of its composer's masterpieces, the zarzuela by Chapí and Fernández-Shaw - though a lovely piece, a subtle collaborative work between musician and playwright - still does not match the splendour of its companion. Yoking them together sadly diminishes the lyric comedy without enabling it to shine with own light.
The critic Serrano de la Pedrosa said something similar at the time of its premiere: the work should have been developed over three acts, since as an illumination of Don Quijote it remains nothing more than anecdotal. I share his opinion. Whatever the case, this zarzuela with its individual profile has value of being an original contribution to in the género chico at a critical moment in its history; is was a brave bet for a theatre so tied to the one-act zarzuela as the Apolo to take on. Chapí was conscious of the difficult path on which the genre was embarking, and proposed a new route - albeit one not followed by anybody else.
The reading that Luis Olmos gives of Chapí's zarzuela is pretty orthodox: it merely "retouches" the ending, where Cervantes' monologue is trimmed, and it replaces the evocation of the Windmills Adventure with the entrance of Maese Pedro and his troop at the inn, thereby establishing a bridge to the second part of the entertainment. The direction gives great narrative fluidity to a work that in today's eyes might be viewed with with confusion, mixing as it does the novelistic with the theatrical. The staging of the single scene, in spite of its simplicity, provides a more than adequate frame through subtle colourist touches adding to the action. The cast work with enormous professionalism; because this is a work with many secondary roles, all the singers and actors perform with the necessary discretion. The distinguished baritone Enrique Baquerizo makes a dramatically apt Don Quixote, although with some vocal limitations on this particular evening.
El retablo de Maese Pedro ("Master Peter's Puppet Show") is quite another thing. The plot is an imaginative adaptation of chapters XVI and XVII of Part 2 of Don Quijote [ed. where the hero is drawn into the action of a puppet show depicting a knightly love story of Moors and Christians] into which de Falla introduces some changes. The score shows the composer's deep knowledge of ancient Spanish music, reworked with great genius. These characteristics make Luis Olmos all the more comfortable in giving rein to integrating his theatre and dance skills, by turning the representation of the puppet show into an authentic ballet. In this way he conjures up a genuinely delicious staging. Whereas the audience watching the show at the inn take on the appearance of little baby dolls, that of the actual puppets is much more realistic, recreating a "costume drama". On the other hand Maese Pedro, the Trujamán ("child narrator") and Don Quixote - sensibly given a similar scenic stature in both works, giving unity to the staging - swing effectively between the false reality and the fiction within the fiction. A fortuitous accident helped reinforce that effect: the unfortunate indisposition of the countertenor Flavio Oliver led to his role being sung from a proscenium box by soprano María Auxiliadora Toledano; this way Oliver's stage mime and Toledano's beautiful, vibrato-free singing accentuated the magical dual character of the Trujamán.
The choreography and stage direction of de Falla's opera - here amounting to the same thing - were brilliant. Both tales, Romance and Quixotic, were beautifully drawn, with profound characterisations radiating real tenderness. Costumes and stage settings (sharing the basic structure of the Chapí zarzuela) provided the icing on the cake of this excellent staging. Orchestra and chorus adeptly took advantage of two very different scores; Lorenzo Ramos providing a suitable aural counterpoint to Olmos' shining scenic imagination.
In sum, a sumptuous night; despite the nagging sense that if it had not been for the need to fulfil a commemorative obligation we could have enjoyed either of the two works much more, had they been more suitably coupled.
© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2005
A note on Chapí's music:
Many readers may not have had the chance to hear La venta de Don Quijote* for themselves, so an afterword on the score may not be out of place. Chapí calculates the musical input to a nicety. Largely derived from the antique-sounding brass flourish and memorable punteado ("strumming") string motif heard at the start of the first scene, the material is very typical of his later style familiar from La patria chica or El puñao de rosas. The punteado - strikingly anticipating the orchestral jota in Vives' La villana - is finessed with elegance throughout, and "incidental" though they may be, the five numbers certainly carry the action forward as surely as in Chapí and Fernández Shaw's better-known collaborations.
The action revolves around the perceptions of "Sr. Miguel" (Cervantes, overseeing the action as in the later El huesped del Sevillano) but the musical tone is set by some lively choral scenes, with fluid sung and spoken interventions from Don Alonso (Quijote,) the innkeeper, barmaid Maritornes and other guests at the inn. Chapí's invention is unfailingly intelligent, sophisticated in scoring and pleasant on the ear. In particular, Don Alonso's passionate declaration of love to Maritornes is something of a lyrical gem, poised on a knife-edge between the ludicrous and the touching. In sum, the five numbers of La venta de Don Quijote may only run to a total of about 20 minutes, but without being specially individual they certainly represent Chapí in his most theatrically effective vein.
© Christopher Webber 2005
* My thanks to John Tombs for enabling me to do so.
La venta de Don