La verbena de la Paloma (courtesy  Hebbel-Theater Berlin)

Bretón • de la Vega (ad. Bollaín)
Noche de verano
en la verbena de la Paloma

Teatro Auditorio de San Lorenzo del Escorial
(El Escorial, 30th July 2006)

Enrique Mejías García

New stage - new hope

After a long although understandable delay, the Comunidad de Madrid has finally opened the Teatro Auditorio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, with a Festival programme in which instrumental and theatre music go hand in hand. There’s no denying the programmers’ good taste and acumen in choice of stage works and concert repertoire. They’ve set the bar very high and have set themselves a stiff task if they are not to fall short of their audience’s expectations.

Is this first Festival de San Lorenzo del Escorial a declaration of intent? Let’s hope so. From Die Zauberflöte to Siegfried ... from Monteverdi to La verbena de la Paloma. Zarzuela fans should hasten to the Auditorio, with the thought that it is not chance that this first Festival has programmed such a classic of the genre as La verbena with this really innovative staging concept, executed with unquestionable quality, which will not leave anyone indifferent. Let us hope that all the effort expended and investments poured into the creation of this splendid Auditorio don’t turn to ashes in the mouth.

Teatro Auditorio de San Lorenzo del Escorial

The design by the Estudio Picado-De Blas Arquitectos is an ultramodern space, impeccably built and structured around varied stone blocks intimately related to the geographic features of the region. Balance, purity and sobriety are the key to this place, set in one of the most beautiful parts of the Madrid area. The only disadvantage – one which no doubt will be solved with regular performances at the Teatro Auditorio in mind – is poor access by public transport, still very limited and not remotely sufficient for what’s expected of such a significant performance space.

A verbena without prejudice

For this first Festival, unreservedly – and unlike so many run-of-the-mill Spanish summer festivals – El Escorial puts its faith in zarzuela. Zarzuela without prejudice, without preconceived ideas, and with a view to an audience which simply demands enjoyment when it goes to the theatre to hear and see “one more time” the immortal work of Maestro Bretón ... but not as we know it!

Marina Bollaín designed this staging for Berlin’s Hebbel-Theater in 2002, for a city without previous knowledge of zarzuela and where part of the audience could not be in the position, as has happened at El Escorial, of clinging to outworn values such as: “it’s a return to the Spanish dark ages” or “it’s destroyed the historical characters”. Felipe II or Martin Luther are historical characters. La Señá Rita and Julián, not.

We madrileños who go year after year to the August verbenas (i.e. San Cayetano, San Lorenzo and Our Lady of La Paloma) have had the joyous sensation of seeing on stage Madrid’s fiestas as they are celebrated nowadays. The verbena which we will celebrate in two weeks’ time is the verbena we admired yesterday in the theatre. To further this aim of promoting that contemporary spirit which is the essence of género chico, the projection of a video was brought to bear during the interval, in which sequences from the 2001 Fiesta of la Paloma were projected whilst the orchestra played the energetic pasodoble from Torroba’s Maria Manuela... music purely in the genuine “Chueca” style.

The realistic game played by Bollaín is viewed through the ever-magical lens of theatrical reality, and this lends the stage setting an indescribably colouristic prettiness and a baroque aesthetic both kitsch and “chavish”. Today’s Julián is a   butane gas cylinder salesman, Señá Rita’s taberna is Bar Rita... In a vertical structure inspired by vignettes from 13 Rue del Percebe by Ibáñez, this Verbena is developed more communally than ever, where monologues become dialogues and where, in words of the director: “feelings are open secrets and everybody knows everything. What it is not expressed is not felt, not seen and soon forgotten. Privacy does not exist”.

La verbena de la Paloma (courtesy  Hebbel-Theater Berlin)

Amongst the performers the two baritones shone luminously: José Antonio López as Julián and David Rubiera as Don Hilarión. The first launched his very first phrase (“unos ríen y otros lloran de verdad” - “some laugh and others cry deeply”) with a manly, robust voice of serious resonance. The second, a Hilarión who might pass for a thirty year old shop-boy on the razzle, sang most stylishly, outlining the sensual druggist with a beautiful voice quite outside the norm for such a hackneyed character. Of the fairer sex Amparo Navarro was an accurate and sexy Susana, María José Suárez a fair Casta but better as the very good flamenco cantaora, whilst Marina Pardo’s Señá Rita was more convincingly acted than sung.

Coming to the supporting players Federico Gallar made a more manly Tía Antonia than we’ve heard before, and charmed the audience with a beautiful habanera sung in Catalan. Nuria Castejón danced as only she can the soleá of the second scene and an interpolated soleares with piano accompaniment. Cristina Luar was Doña Severiana, this time not the silly comedic wife of Don Sebastián, but as a well-known singer from the barrio. At the culminating verbena she performed, much to our surprise, a rumba, “La Bomba” and the Cuban bolero “Dos gardenias para ti”, extending that naturalistic practice that Bretón indicated when he asked for those “organillo pieces” which we hear in the dance scene. The Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid played with unusual brio, especially in the interval pasodoble, and the chorus did its bit, moving in and out of the scene and interacting with the main characters who give life to the plot.

With productions in this style, devised for spectators without preconceptions, one sees youthful, modern realisations of the universal stories told us by the género chico. Within two weeks, in the verbena of la Paloma 2006 we can be certain that in a corner of the barrio of la Latina there will be a Susana hoping for a Hilarión to invite her to dance, while in the opposite corner there will be a desperate and tearful Julián who will complain between his teeth to his godmother that “everyone in this town has a heart small as hers”. Here’s an invitation to everyone reading these lines to come to Madrid, to look around her streets and to experience, along with everyone else, that fabulous sensation which along with la eterna zarzuela is part of the life of this city.

© Enrique Mejías García 2006
translation © Christopher Webber 2006

Noche de verano en la verbena de la Paloma , zarzuela in one act. Music: Tomás Bretón; text: Ricardo de la Vega (adapted by Marina Bollaín)
Julián – José Antonio López; Susana – Amparo Navarro; Casta/ Cantaora – María José Suárez; Don Hilarión – David Rubiera; Don Sebastián – Emilio Sánchez; Señá Rita – Marina Pardo; Tío Antonio – Federico Gallar; Bailaora – Nuria Castejón; Severiana – Cristina Luar; Tabernero – Felipe García; Vecina – Anabel Aldalur; Joven 1º/ Guardia 1º - Fernando Cobo; Joven 2º/ Guardia 2º - Ángel Sáiz; Orquesta Graffiti
Marina Bollaín (d.); Josune Lasa, Natascha Von Steiger, Marie Greffath (design); Josune Lasa (costumes); Olga García (lighting);   Peky Spaziani (producer); Nuria Castejón (choreography); Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid - Félix Redondo (chorus director); Miguel Roa (c.)
Executive production: Fundación Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid; Production: Festival de San Lorenzo del Escorial, based on original production by Hebbel-Theater, Berlín

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