Spanish Baroque Opera: A New Old Discovery by Tempesta di mare.

“Vengan las flores, el jazmín y la rosa,

la azucena, que a Juno, suprema deidad

del Olimpo, consagra del orbe

la más noble reina.”

(Bring forth the flowers, the jasmine and rose,

the white lily, dedicated by the world to Juno,

supreme goddess of Olympus,

the most noble queen.)

Sings Dido in the baroque zarzuela “Destinos vencen finezas” (Destiny Trumps your Vows), by Lorenzo de las Llamosas (Perú) and Juan Francisco de Navas (Spain). This bucolic aria, full of nature, describes the effect of each flower: jasmine, rose, carnation and the white lily. A far cry from the familiar aria “When I am Laid on Earth”, which occurs at the end of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, before Dido’s suicide. It is also quite different from the romanzas of the more familiar romantic zarzuela, which comes into full bloom in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Tempesta di mare includes a rendition of this zarzuela in its concert (sung by mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano) within a Western European baroque context.

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The concert, “Purcell, Charpentier and ¡zarzuela!” was presented at the Perelmann Hall in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 7 at 8:00 pm. This baroque orchestra is to be commended for finding this piece, last performed in Madrid in 1699, and featuring it in this venue. Spanish music is slowly becoming more main stream in the United States in classical musical circles, but has been usually programmed alone as an anomaly, or alongside Latin American art music.

Considering the era, this baroque zarzuela has more in common with baroque music from other European countries, than it does with later “romantic” zarzuelas and other well known Spanish pieces. The poetry in the baroque zarzuela is based on classical themes: gods and legends of antiquity, rather than folklore, local and national politics, and every day events. Two baroque zarzuelas that have been performed recently in staged productions are La púrpura de la rosa and Viento es la dicha de amor.

The regional dialects and dances of Spain, so prominent in the zarzuela grande and género chico are missing from Destinos. After 1492, with Castile and Aragón united, Granada conquered, and the Catholic Monarchs on a quest for exploration and expansion, it took some time before composers would insert strong and obvious reflections of regional identities. Flamenco, so employed in the work of Spain’s most famous musical son, Manuel de Falla, is not yet much of a factor in 1699. Although the Roma had settled in Iberia by the time this zarzuela was composed, the flamenco music was not heard much outside of Roma communities until the 1800s.

On Saturday, Destinos vencen finezas, the final piece of the program, was sung by one singer, even though there are multiple characters in it. It is short and the singer handled the music well, so this concept worked. Ms. Montalbano took much care to differentiate the characters in her expression and acting. Her pronunciation did not include the [θ] for c and z, which was how people spoke in 1699 in Madrid.   The librettist was Peruvian, so perhaps that entered into the pronunciation choice. She sang with conviction in baroque style and vocally was very consistent. The work has a lot of musical texture, created by the different instrumental parts, and the vocal line was part of that weave. I did miss a fuller and more multi-colored vocalism, but some would consider that inappropriate in baroque style. It was clear that Ms. Montalbano was passionate about this music and enjoyed performing it. Here is a video in which she talks about the learning process:

Tempesta de mare played with gusto during the zarzuela and the other selections, without a conductor waving a baton. Also characteristic of the baroque practice is that some of the instrumentalists play standing: violins, violas and winds. It was lovely to hear the period instruments including:  the baroque recorders, harpsichord, viola da gamba, baroque guitars, violone and theorbos. Castanets were used in the zarzuela and additional percussion in other pieces.

Without the internet, this performance of Destinos vencen finezas, would likely have never taken place. They found the piece via internet and for centuries the score has languished in the National Library in Spain. This particular zarzuela has been written about in literary and theatrical studies, but how many scholars actually had any idea what it sounded like? (Even if they could read music, they probably were not musically trained enough to hear the orchestra, the full effect, in their inner ear). Over three hundred years after its debut, a new audience, new musicians, thousands of miles from Spain, experienced this discovery of an old work in Philadelphia.

IMG_3672For more information about the Tempesta di mare, please visit their website: www.tempestadimare.org