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

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El gato con botas: An Adorable Production by Gotham Chamber Opera

Music, puppets, rabbits, fish, a lion, a monster and a super clever cat–all the ingredients for a charming and adorable show. El gato con botas by Catalán composer, Xavier Montsalvatge, was presented in Spanish on December 11 at 7:00 pm by Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City at the Museo del Barrio. This was a revival of their premiere in 2010. I don’t know how I missed that premiere, but I’m glad that I was able to catch the revival. It was a very delightful evening.

By far, the puppets upstaged all the human characters and the music, and the inanimate brought to life,  stole the show. Overall the singing of the 60 minute opera was well done. Andrea Carroll, the princess, displayed beautiful lush toned singing, perfectly appropriate for her role. Kevin Burdette, thoroughly embodied the ogre character, through his precise singing and parallel movements and expressions with the giant puppet.  As the cat, Karin Mushegain, delivered with gusto. In general I did not find the Spanish lyrics very idiomatic–I had to refer to the subtitles (and I am a fluent speaker of Spanish).  I could not tell if that was due to the way the lyrics were set or the singers familiarity with the language as everything was pronounced correctly.

Since the musical score includes some instrumental interludes, there were opportunities for stage business and dances among the puppets. The puppetry was nothing short of spectacular. The skill and preparation of those artistis working the strings was evident. The only weakness, from my vantage point (right orchestra seat) was that the cat singer, was too visible and upstage the cat puppet. It was difficult to concentrate on the cat when she was singing. I wonder if having the singers in the pit might have been less distracting.

Gotham Chamber Opera and the entire cast and production crew deserve kudos for this production. There were many partners involved in making it happen, from the Guggenheim Works in Progress, Museo del Barrio, Tectonic Theater Project and all of the generous patrons. El gato con botas is an obscure opera by an relatively unknown composer (really only familiar to those that study Spanish music). The opera is short and sweet and the Gotham Chamber Opera production is light and fun!

Luisa Fernanda: Encore!

One beautiful woman, 2 men–a triangle. The stuff of love stories. One of the men is young and flaky. The other is established and mature. Who will she choose? Then enter the duchess! Dangerous liaisons develop within this quartet. This flirtatious noblewoman captures the attention of both men, originally devoted to the serious Luisa Fernanda. 

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COT (Concert Operetta Theater) led by Daniel Pantano in Philadelphia, boldly takes on a difficult challenge with one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) grand zarzuela, Luisa Fermanda, by Spanish composer, Moreno Torroba.  José Melendez as Musical Director and pianist, is the backbone of this endeavor. A big hurdle in producing zarzuela outside of Spain and other spanish speaking countries, has always been casting. In Spain zarzuelas are still done, even some of those composed in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a tradition and a background knowledge of the cryptic historical intrigues and politics that comprise many of the libretti. In addition, the public and the performers are familiar with the genre and speak the language. In the United States at least, the performance of classical music (and zarzuela as a form of operetta floats between musical theatre and opera) in Spanish has lagged behind that in French, German and of course Italian. Even Russian works are done more often. Spanish diction has just started to be taught in some conversatories and music programs.

In addition to the language barrier, zarzuela  includes spoken dialogue and dance as well as singing. The nature of the lead roles especially, require an operatically trained voice (or at least one which attempts the training) and musicianship to learn the parts well enough to be able to follow an orchestral conductor.  The “comedy couple” in some zarzuelas (and there is none in Luisa Fernanda) is often cast with less glorious/less trained voices BUT, this couple must dance and act well since they deliver most of the laughs. In essense, for some of the zarzuelas, you need a triple threat opera singer (or zarzuela singer in Spain) who speaks and sings Spanish. These requirements make it difficult and expensive to produce a zarzuela. Remember, that there are full orchestras that go along with all this stage action and design, so in addition to a budget that can rival a fully staged opera, and assembling a qualified cast, there is the issue of marketing and getting “butts in the seats.” Outside of New York City, some parts of California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, with strong hispanic populations, this requires much more work than getting people into an opera or a musical in English. The heydey of zarzuela in the United States, was in those areas, from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Plácido Domingo himself, and Pablo Zinger of New York City, were instrumental in promoting the genre during this time. Later, it seemed that people just ran out of funding, or  perhaps the energy, to produce as much.

COT is able to skirt some of these issues with a concert version. There are no sets or costumes, and acting while speaking is reduced to the minimum. The singers wear formal wear, suits for the men and gowns for the ladies. Since there are scores and music stands visible and the audience knows it is a “concert version,” they come prepared to enjoy the music without the elaborate sets, authentic costumes, dancing and dialogue. A screen was set up to the left of the stage, and titles were projected in English, facilitating comprehension for the non-Spanish speakers.

During the concert on Sunday, October 19, 2014, I missed at first, the costumes, movement and set, but then the voices in this production made up for it. In particular, tenor, César Delgado, delivered a rendition of “De este apacible rincón” that rivaled that of Plácido Domingo!

Laura Maria Reyes who played Luisa Fernanda, (and on 5 days notice!) and Jorge Espino as Vidal, also displayed solid technique, diction, beaultiful vocalism, and idiomatic expression. The rest of the ensemble, some not native Spanish speakers, held their own in the dialogue and navigated the somewhat awkward vocal lines that often plague zarzuela. Although the end results are very charming and sometimes cute, zarzuelas are not that easy to sing. One interesting change was to have mezzo Chrystal E. Williams sing the roles of Mariana and El Saboyano. El Saboyano is usually sung by a tenor, but she owned it! The best actor in the spoken dialogue by far was Valentine Fernández-Buitrago. He seemed at home with this kind of acting and with good reason as he began performing in it very young in Puerto Rico. As Duchess Carolina, Eugenia Forza embodied this persona. Although there were no costumes, she appeared to have stepped out of a Goya portrait–Cayetana in the flesh–and I mean that as a compliment. Her stance, her expressions, her “look” fit the character of quasi decadent nobility.

My favorite part of this zarzuela has always been the duet “Cállate, corazón.” To sing it or hear it is just heartwrenching. I had to stop myself from standing up and yelling “Can we get rid of the music stands??” This was the one point where I just wanted to see them be Luisa Fernanda and Javier and forget that this was a “concert.” That is the one negative about a well done concert version: It always makes you want more and to long to see the work fully realized. Hopefully, this is the start of something in Philadelphia. COT needs to do this show again and other local companies need to think about repertoire in Spanish. COT proved that this zarzuela’s music could stand on its own. Without all of the trimmings (and the expense and complicated casting), perhaps this is a way to still enjoy this unique genre.

To view a complete Spanish performance of Luisa Fernanda: