La venta
de Don

de Falla
El retablo
de Maese

Teatro de la Zarzuela
(Madrid, 13 March 2005)

Ignacio Jassa Haro

La venta de Don Quijote / El retablo de Maese Pedro (children's programme)

review by Ignacio Jassa Haro
note on the music by Christopher Webber

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.

Let's take the Chapí first. The theatrical idea is brilliant: we find ourselves at a La Mancha inn where Miguel de Cervantes recently freed from prison casually observes the noble extravagances of an ancient madman and decides to make them the departure point for a story in which he can give rein to his own imagination. Nevertheless once we've seen La venta... ("Don Quijote at the Inn"), the pleasure that this intelligent plot - magically heightened by what I would almost call incidental music with songs - is mixed with the strange sensation of having seen something incomplete.

La venta de Don Quijote (Vocal Score cover)

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 Quijote
zarzuela in 1 act
music by Ruperto Chapí
text by Carlos Fernández-Shaw

El retablo de Maese Pedro
Opera in 1 act
music and libretto by Manuel de Falla

Cast: La venta de Don Quijote.
Enrique Baquerizo (Don Alonso); Jesús Landín (el ventero); Gloria Sánchez (Tomasa); María Auxiliadora Toledano (Maritornes); Emilio Sánchez (el arriero); Javier Alonso (un gañán); Fernando Cayo (Sr. Miguel); Celestino Varela (Blas); David Llorente (el cuadrillero); Marta Molina (la sobrina de Don Alonso); Carmen Belloch (el ama de llaves); Ángel Burgos (el cura); Luis G. Gámez (el barbero); Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela; Antonio Fauró (chorus director)
El retablo de Maese Pedro. Singers/actors: Enrique Baquerizo (Don Quijote); Maese Pedro (Julio Morales); Flavio Oliver (el trujamán); Auxiliadora Toledano (el trujamán; parte vocal); Carmen Belloch (Sancho Panza); Luis G. Gámez (el ventero); David Lorente (el estudiante); Marta Molina (el paje); Ángel Burgos (el hombre de las lanzas). Dancers: Carmen Angulo (Melisendra); Cristina Arias (Don Gayferos); Esther Carrasco (heraldo/moro); Olga Castro (heraldo/moro); Inma Garrido (Don Roland/moro); Joaquín León (mozo/heraldo/moro/verdugo); Eva Pedraza (heraldo/moro); Antonio Perea (mozo del retablo/moro enamorado); Javier Pérez (mozo del retablo/el rey Marsilio); Luis Romero (Carlo Magno/moro); Vicente Santaella (heraldo/moro); Pepa Sanz (heraldo/moro)

Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Manuel Zuriaga y Josep Simón (design); María Luisa Engel (costumes); Fuensanta Morales (choreography); Juan Gómez-Cornejo (lighting); Luis Olmos (director/ adaptor [El retablo...]); Lorenzo Ramos (conductor)

Performing editions by Manuel Moreno Buendía (La venta de Don Quijote, ICCMU) and Yvan Nommick (El retablo de Maese Pedro, Chester Music)

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