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Mistress Saioa, A Star Is Born

Teatro de la Zarzuela
01/27/2023 -  & January 29, February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5*, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 2023
Tomas Bretón: La Dolores
Saioa Hernández*/Carmen Solís (Dolores), Jorge de León*/Javier Palacios (Lázaro), José Antonio López*/Angel Odena (Melchor), María Luisa Corbacho*/Milagros Martín (Gaspara), Rubén Amoretti*/Ihor Voievodin (Rojas), Javier Tomé*/Santiago Vidal (Celemín), Gerardo Bullón (Patricio), Juan Noval Moro (Cantador de coplas)
Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela, Coro de voces blancas Sinan Kay, Antonio Fauró (chorus master), Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid, Guillermo García Calvo (conductor)
Amelia Ochandiano (stage director), Ricardo Sánchez Cuerda (sets), Jesús Ruiz (costumes), Juan Gómez‑Cornejo (lighting), Miguel Angel Berna (choreography)

(© Javier del Real)

The zarzuela, a Spanish form of operetta, is largely unknown beyond Spain and Latin America. Unlike Austria, Germany and France, bastions of operetta in the late nineteenth century, which also enjoy serious and highly-developed opera traditions, Spain didn’t develop such a tradition. Its opera companies continued to import operas from other European countries. In the mid‑to‑late nineteenth century, Spanish composers who followed the Wagnerian earthquake in Europe felt left out. This was likely intensified by their awareness of the decline of Spain, once a dominant power.

Tomas Bretón (1850‑1923) composed several zarzuelas, including his best‑known, La verbena de la Paloma (1894). He also composed symphonies, symphonic poems, an oratorio and six operas, of which La Dolores (1894) is the most famous. He wanted Spain to develop an opera tradition like that of other major European countries. At the close of the nineteenth century, the major operatic influence in Spain was Italian verismo. Though Spain and Italy share similarities, such as the Catholic faith, the importance of family and a mostly temperate climate, there are also huge differences. Italy had recently been reconstituted as a unitary state under the Piemontese House of Savoia from 1848‑1871 by expelling the Austrians from the Northeast and overtaking the independent duchies, principalities, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Papal State. Spain, on the other hand, had been a unitary state since its establishment following the Reconquista from the Arabs from the twelfth to fifteenth century. Much of the violence that characterized Italian verismo was a reflection of the turbulent state of the new country of Italy. In late nineteenth century Spain, there was a certain instability due to the influence of increasingly liberal and revolutionary ideas on a declining absolute monarchy.

Bretón’s La Dolores is obviously modelled after Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1889) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892). Musically, there are influences from proto‑verismo operas, such as Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (1876). Bretón makes a point of infusing Spanish folklore throughout the work, culled from the pasodoble, Andalusian soleà, and most prominently the Aragonese jota. The story is reminiscent of the character Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, but unlike in Mascagni’s somber melodrama, Bretón’s tale is more true‑to‑life – a mix of joy and tension. Also, his work is populated with more characters than Cavalleria rusticana. Dolores, a pretty young maid who works in a tavern, has been seduced by the town’s barber, Melchor. Despite all knowing this, she’s courted by three men: Patricio, the town’s rich man; Celemín, a beggar; and Rojas, an Andalusian sergeant, newly-arrived with his regiment in the Aragonese town. Even Lázaro, a seminary student on the verge of being ordained, is smitten. The first act ends with the seducer Melchor interrupting the Andalusian sergeant’s serenade in praise of Dolores by singing a lewd song “Si vas a Calatayud, pregunta por la Dolores, que es una chica muy guapa y amiga de hacer favores” (“If you go to Calatayud, ask for Dolores, a very pretty girl who will grant you favours”). ln a dramatic coup de maître, Bretón has Patricio subdue Dolores’s confrontation with Melchor by ordering the band to resume playing the melodious upbeat jota. This bittersweet atmosphere is authentic verismo, more credible than Santuzza’s perpetual misery. Even the bleakest of dramas takes place in the midst of everyday life, some of it happy.

In Act II, Patricio brags about the many gifts he has bought Dolores. Andalusian Sergeant Rojas swears to fight and kill a bull in Dolores’s honour. The arena’s fence is seen onstage but the actual fight occurs out of our field of vision, which is both dramatically thrilling and more economical. Rojas is almost killed by the bull, but young Lázaro jumps into the arena and saves him. This heroic act marks his passing from adolescence to adulthood. Modeled after Act IV of Carmen, Bretón skillfully simulates the shouts of the various vendors peddling their wares around the arena.

Unlike Mascagni’s Turiddu, the seducer Melchor is devoid of charm, and is cruel and boastful. In Act II, he indecently brags to Dolores’s suitors that he’s already had his way with the pretty maiden and that he can do so again whenever he wishes. This defiant boast is overheard by Dolores, who cunningly accepts Melchor’s tryst, only to set him up by also arranging dates with Patricio, Celemín and Rojas at the same fateful hour, ten o’clock.

In Act III, Lázaro laments his religious vocation, as he too is in love with Dolores. He declares his love, but Dolores dispatches him to avoid his meeting the violent Melchor. He hides in an adjacent room until Melchor arrives and tries to rape Dolores. Young Lázaro defends her and ends up killing Melchor. Dolores attempts to claim having killed him but it’s clear that Lázaro is the culprit. His final words, “Yo soy su matador! Mancilló esta mujer. Yo la amo. El fue un villano; yo quedo de su muerte a responder!” are reminiscent of Don José’s in Carmen “Vous pouvez m’arrêter. C’est moi qui l’ai tuée.”

The Teatro de la Zarzuela chose to mark the centenary of Tomas Bretón’s death by giving the composer’s most famous opera after a very long hiatus – its last production at Teatro de la Zarzuela (where the opera debuted in 1895) was in 1937 – and by choosing two extraordinary singers for the leading roles. The Canary Islands tenor tradition, best known for the great late Alfredo Kraus, continues with Celso Albelo, Francisco Corujo, Airam Hernández and Jorge de León. The latter tenor was cast as the seminarist Lázaro, a role championed by Spain’s legendary tenors Miguel Fleta and Hipólito Lázaro a century ago. Jorge de León has the perfect voice to portray a young man, as his is a sweet and ardent lyrical tenor. His middle voice is sensual and upper register secure. However, his technique isn’t always the most polished. By the end of the opera, there were signs of fatigue, with some high notes unfulfilled.

The highlight of the production was the fabulously talented Saioa Hernández, Spain’s hidden treasure, now being discovered by the world at large. This is a true lirico spinto with a beautiful and distinct timbre and impressive high notes. She was a dramatically convincing yet subtle Dolores, victimized but spirited, vengeful but still in love with Melchor, manipulative but fearful for young Lázaro. In 2022 she graced Europe’s major opera houses, singing Abigaille in Nabucco (Berlin, Madrid), and also appearing in La Gioconda (Milan), Tosca (Berlin, Munich, Paris), Il trovatore (Barcelona) and Aida (Wiesbaden). I fully expect her to become one of opera’s most sought‑after sopranos.

Baritone José Antonio López made a superb Melchor, menacingly villainous. With a powerful low register, he almost instilled fear. Thankfully, stage director Amelia Ochandiano gave him some humanity, revealing through subtle inflections that his bravura and vulgar bragging was, at least in part, to compensate for his weak character and greed in wanting to marry a rich girl, instead of the one he once loved and seduced.

Mezzo María Luisa Corbacho acted to perfection her vocally undemanding role of a caring but meddlesome Gaspara, Lázaro’s aunt and taverner, a role modelled after Cavalleria rusticana’s Mama Lucia. Rubén Amoretti, Javier Tomé and Gerardo Bullón performed ably as the three suitors Rojas, Celemín and Patricio respectively. Bullón had a particularly strong stage presence, while Rubén Amoretti instilled a good deal of humour in the role of a pompous military officer modelled after Donizetti’s Belcore in L’elisir d’amore. Miguel Angel Berna’s choreography of the dances, especially the Act I jota, was splendid – more folkloric than stylized.

Guillermo García Calvo led the orchestra with panache, especially for the brilliant finale of Act I and the impassioned Dolores/Lázaro Act III love duet. With a brilliant cast and top production values, Teatro de la Zarzuela made a strong case for Tomas Bretón’s semi‑forgotten opera, La Dolores. Hopefully other opera houses will follow suit.

Ossama el Naggar



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