Los sobrinos del capitán Grant

This material is © Christopher Webber, Blackheath, London, UK. Last updated March 25th 1998

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Los sobrinos del capitán Grant
by Manuel Fernández Caballero
libretto by Miguel Ramos Carrión

® recommended recording

Jules Verne's early novel Les Enfants du capitaine Grant (1867) is the classic 'note in a bottle' narrative. It has inspired several more or less faithful film versions including Walt Disney's The Castaways (1962) but Miguel Ramos Carrión was quicker off the mark than most with this stage version. He certainly stuck close to the geographical letter of the original novel, but somewhere along the line most of Verne's characters and much of his earnest narrative were jettisoned, in favour of a satirical Madrileño comedy, a Candide without the philosophy. With no less than eighteen mainly exotic locations it certainly provided spectacular entertainment.

Monagasque Stamp
Verne's Les enfants du capitaine Grant has inspired many films, memorabilia - and even stamps

This same theatrical extravagance, though ensuring the wild success of the premiere (Teatro Princípe Alfonso, Madrid, 25th August 1877,) has mitigated against frequent revival of Carrión's comedy. This is a pity, for Los sobrinos del capitan Grant ("Captain Grant's nephews") is graced by one of the most delectable scores in the entire repertoire. Caballero's music makes the most of the picaresque exoticism. It is elegant, witty and outrageously over the top. There is a catchy ladies' smoking chorus - just as in the topically shocking Carmen (1875). There is a marvellous Samba, a chorus of Maori cannibals, a splendid heroic opera aria for an Australian bandit, a suave Underwater Waltz - and, perhaps best of all for Anglophiles, a bilingual duet in Spanish and Caballero's singular brand of Queen's English. Given the cinematic fluidity of modern stage technique, it is hard to see why this superb zarzuela is not more often mounted.

Act 1, scene 1 - the courtyard of a tenement house in Madrid. The residents dance and sing noisily (Coro: "Ya llegó la murga") until Lieutenant Mochila ("knapsack") comes out of his apartment and fires his gun, which scatters them. Another inhabitant, the beautiful young dancer Soledad, is in love with the student Escolastico. He has won some money in the lottery, and goes to tell Soledad of his plans to abandon his studies. Mochila reappears, an impoverished and slightly crazed ex-infantryman given to wild daydreaming (Canción: "Soy un hombre que está desesperado".) He calls his neighbours to tell them of a mysterious plan, which will win them all fame and fortune - if they'll only provide him with a little capital (Solo y Coro: "!Vecinos! !Vecinas, al patio bajad!".) No one listens to the crazy old officer, or shows any interest in the apparently nonsensical jottings he shows them - except Soledad, who offers to help him. Mochila tells her about a bottle he has found in the belly of a sea-bream, which contains a message from one Captain Grant, detailing his shipwreck off the coast of Patagonia. His brig the Veloz ("Swift") sank, and he himself was taken prisoner by natives. A rich treasure trove awaits any adventurer who finds it - according to this last, despairing message.

A Scots magnate, Sir Edward Clyron, appears in response to Mochila's cryptic advert in the local newspaper - which failed to mention the treasure. Captain Grant once saved Clyron's life, and he will put his sailing yacht the Scotland at Mochila's disposal, if the old soldier will help discover the fate of his saviour. Soledad, pretending to be a niece of the shipwrecked Captain, vouches for Mochila's selfless disinterest in the matter. After a little gentle persuasion, his 'nephew' Scolastico agrees to join the party, as does Clyron's shy 'niece' Lady Ketty (Katy), whose Spanish is sadly limited. The generous Escolastico agrees at once to act as tutor to this pretty English rose. Enjoining secrecy, Clyron leaves with Ketty, and the three Spaniards celebrate their cunning in a breathless patter trio (Terceto: "Vuestro tío se ha salvado".)

Scene 2 - on board the Scotland. The mariners are making final preparations to cast off (Coro: "Así escuchando de la mar".) Soledad - who has never before been further from home than the Parca del Retiro in Madrid - embarks, as do the others. At the last minute, they are joined by the absent-minded Doctor Mirabel, anxious to study the flora and fauna of the Philippines. He meant to have sailed with the Ireland, but discovers his confusion too late as the Scotland has already cast off for the long voyage to Chile - so he must try to take a passage for the Philippines from there. The act ends with a brief English shanty from the sailors ("La enseña de Inglaterra".)

Act 2, scene 1 - the main square of Talcahuano, in Chile. It is a fiesta, and the picturesque townsfolk are taking the air (Coro: "Hoy celebra Chile".) A posse of local women extol the virtues of smoking - if it is a vice for men, it is fashionable and elegant for ladies (Coro fumandar: "Si es en el hombre un vicio".) The entire populace join in a lively Samba (Coro: "Oigan las guitarras"), which heralds the arrival of Clyron and his party. It becomes clear that the lovely Ketty, whose Spanish is improving no end under Escolastico's tender pedagogy, is really Clyron's fiancée - rather to the relief of Soledad. Mochila, who had gone in search of details of the wreck of the Veloz, returns with the disheartening news that no Spanish boat has been sunk in Chilean waters for over ten years. The rescue party decide that Captain Grant must be a prisoner of the Indians, and decide to press inland to look for him. Doctor Mirabel, unable to find a passage to the Philippines, decides to tag along with them.

Scene 2 - a rocky mountain pass in the foothills of the Andes. A Patagonian native guide offers his services to the adventurers, which they accept gladly. Lady Ketty has discovered, slightly to her disappointment, that the Spanish 'cousins' are really lovers. She has heard passionate whisperings which are a great mystery to such a well-bred British maiden - do all Spanish lovers behave like that? Ketty and Soledad compare notes as to national style in love-making in a delightful Dúo: "En Inglaterra los amantes", featuring an English (?) refrain ("Yes you love mi ... very, very morning star, my dear.") After this charming interlude, the whole party set off up the pass on pack mules.

The Condor of the Andes

Scene 3 - the high peaks of the Andes. Our heroes congratulate themselves on reaching the summit, though Ketty only just makes it. Celebrations are cut short by subterranean rumblings, and all start tumbling down the mountain as a devastating earthquake knocks the entire Andes range flat (orchestral Interlude). Scene 4 - the intrepid travellers have rolled down to the Argentine Pampas, where they are recovering from their exertions, though Ketty found the earthquake quite delicious. Mochila and the Patagonian are stuck down a hole, but soon rescued. But where is the Doctor? Their search is cut short, as they see him being carried off in the claws of an enormous condor, which the quick-thinking Patagonian manages to shoot out of the sky. The doctor is fortunately dropped into a nearby tree, and all celebrate his miraculous escape.

Scene 5 - outside a military fort. The soldiers are being drilled by their Comandante (Coro: "Marchemos de frente".) Argentina is at war with Paraguay, and they are awaiting the brutal General Archiparraguirreberrigorrigurrea (sic.) to give them their marching orders. Clyron's party are locked up as Paraguayan spies just before the General arrives (Coro y Solo: "Viva el general Archiparraguirreberrigorrigurrea!",) and after a farcical trial scene he blithely condemns them to death. Mercifully, the Comandante takes pity on them, arranging for blanks to be fired by the execution squad. The ruse works - unlike in Tosca - and all duly fall down dead, except the doctor, who has to be pulled down by the others. After the General leaves the travellers gratefully make their escape.

Scene 6 - The plains, in the rainy season. The travellers have taken refuge from the floods in the branches of a giant tree. Doctor Mirabel studies Mochila's document more closely, and realises to his horror that Captain Grant is not in America at all, but Australia! At that moment a bolt of lightning sets the tree on fire - and just as the party is deciding how best to escape, they notice a pack of alligators swimming towards them. The alligators begin to savage the tree, and they are left with no alternative but to jump into the water and swim for it.

Act 3 - scene 1, outside a mill in Australia. A group of bandits led by the desperado Jaime, a Catalan forger, celebrate the golden prospects offered by their new-found freedom in the outback (Coro y Romanza: "Ya que ingrata la fortuna".) Jaime has discovered that the Scotland has docked at a nearby port, and has let it be known that he has information which will help Clyron and his friends. Posing as a hard-working colonist, the bandit chief fools them into thinking that he was the Chief Mate of the Veloz, and knows where Captain Grant is being held in the central desert by the aborigines. Clyron suggests they trek inland straight away, taking Jaime as their guide.

Scene 2 - Midnight, at a railway station in a rocky desert. A train arrives, and Jaime descends with the Adventurers - all except Mochila, who shouts and waves frantically through a window as the train pulls away and into the distance, towards Melbourne. Scene 3 - A disreputable Inn in the interior. A group of revelling bandits sings a song in praise of brandy, gin and rum (Coro: "En tanto que con gozo".) Jaime has come on ahead, and orders the innkeeper to hide his horses, leaving the Adventurers stranded. Clyron writes a letter for Jaime to give to the Captain of the Scotland, asking him to provide the bearer with whatever he needs. Mochila is reunited with his friends, after a series of hair-raising adventures on the way to Melbourne, which he invites the Doctor to read about in the Australian Gazette. Mirabel comes across the description of a bandit, who sounds suspiciously like to their trusted guide, but Mochila has already acted - he has brought along the local police force. Sadly, before they can arrest Jaime he and his band have raced for the horses and fled - with the letter for the Scotland.

Scene 4 - A coral-diver's hut on the coast. Doctor Mirabel and Mochila, asking the diver about the whereabouts of the Scotland, receive news that she was set upon by pirates and sunk. Learning that Jaime is lurking in the vicinity, Mochila decides to hire the diver's equipment and recover Sir Clyron's case of valuable jewels. Scene 5 - the wreck of the Scotland, at the bottom of the sea. An elegant Orchestral Waltz: "Al fondo del mar" accompanies a mimed scene over music, in which Jaime and Mochila are seen diving from separate boats down to the wreck to find the jewel case. Jaime finds it first, along with the skeleton of the Scotland's Captain, but in a gripping climax the brave Mochila wrests the jewel case from him just before Jaime is dragged away to his doom by a giant octopus.

Act 4, scene 1 - a Maori hut in New Zealand. The Adventurers, except for the Doctor, have been caught by Maori cannibals and learn through an interpreter that they are to be ritually sacrificed and eaten next morning. Just before dawn, the natives perform their a ritual dance round the hut (Coro: "Karateté Ratarabaka") but in the nick of time Escolastica finds a cunningly concealed trapdoor in the floor, and they are able to slip down it just before the disappointed Maoris burst in.

Scene 2 - the sacred volcano, Maunganamú. The Adventurers find themselves emerging in the centre of the crater, which naturally causes the volcano to erupt. Our heroes flee in panic. Scene 3 - a grotto on the seashore. Starving, the party hungrily start consuming mussels in the rockpools. They are amazed to come across Doctor Mirabel, in warpaint and huge plumes, which he used to disguise himself and escape capture. Amazingly, the natives took him for a Chinaman and have made him their Chieftain. He now speaks fluent Maori, and has learnt the intricate laws of taboo. The whole party flee in a nearby war-canoe.

from a 'Jules Verne' pack of cards
Verne's original of
Doctor Mirabel

Scene 4 - Captain Grant's hut, on a little island off the coast. Captain Grant with his two surviving crew members despairs of ever being found, or seeing his homeland again. The rescuers finally arrive and discover him, and there are fond greetings between the Captain and his two "sobrinos" - whom he recognises right away, rather to Mochila's surprise. But Grant is unwilling to leave without reclaiming the Veloz treasure, now in the hands of the Maoris. The Doctor offers to help him reclaim it, and all escape the pursuing Maoris in the canoe.

Scene 5 - a Grand Maori Temple. The Great Chief Mirabel is leading ritual celebrations and dances. Clyron arrives with Mochila, Captain Grant and his crew, and when the natives start to wave their spears, Mirabel shouts that the White Men are taboo - untouchable - enabling them to walk up to the Sacred Treasure and take it. Mirabel leaves with the rest, and the whole party joyfully heads off to start the long journey back to Spain (Final: "A España ricos ya por fin".)

song texts

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