ZARZUELA: Some may recognize it as a palace in Madrid, or as a fish stew, the Spanish equivalent of bouillabaisse. But it is also, most prominently, the Spanish variety of operetta, one that has been around for more than 300 years. The young Placido Domingo, for one, began his career touring Mexico with his parents' celebrated zarzuela troupe.
The "Antologia de la Zarzuela" that Spain's Jose' Tamayo is bringing to Wolf Trap for a week's run beginning Tuesday certainly will be the most lavish and authentically Spanish zarzuela presentation ever seen in North America, with a company of 160 singers and dancers, plus orchestra. According to most of Madrid's critics, it is truly espectacular.
Tamayo first mounted his zarzuela "anthology" in Barcelona in 1966, and it has grown in size and scope ever since. By 1980, it was mammoth enough to have been presented at Madrid's principal bullring, and the troupe has made tours not only to Lisbon and Mexico City, but also Moscow and Leningrad. The Wolf Trap visit is its only U.S. appearance.
The "Antologia" is a thorough introductory course to some of the greatest works of the Spanish musical stage, as well as a depiction of Spain's city and country life through the centuries, its folklore, from gypsies to bullfighters, and its national dances. These indigenous traits have made zarzuela peculiarly Spanish, but also have largely prevented its export outside the Spanish-speaking world.
Although some zarzuelas have French or Italian musical scaffolding, the music everyone remembers is invariably Spanish-accented. The "Antologia" capitalizes on this, offering regional songs, dances and romantic tributes to certain cities and provinces, such as the affecting "Adio's, Granada." And when Spanish characters are discovered outside their native land in zarzuela, they can't help singing about it. "De Espan a vengo" (I Come from Spain) sings a homesick Madrid girl in love with a Jewish bookseller who somehow finds herself in India in Luna's "El Nin o judio" (The Jewish Boy), a 1918 hit. This fabulously tuneful song is one that every Spanish soprano has in her encore repertoire. Another Madrid maiden seen in the "Antologia" is from the melodious "El Barberillo de Lavapie's" (The Little Barber of Lavapie's), written by Barbieri--a most prolific composer--in 1874. The plot concerns political and romantic intrigue at the time of Goya, and the heroine, a dressmaker named Paloma, tells how she got her name: As I was born in the Street of the Dove (Paloma), I've been called just that--in jest-- ever since I was a child. And as I happily fly from one street to another, They still call me Dove! I don't have an iridescent neck . . . I don't have feathers . . . But I'm as white as a dove, . . . and I have no claws!
One doesn't have to be an ornithologist to fall for the irresistibly catchy tune behind these sentiments. This is arguably one of the most glittering entrance-songs in all operetta.
Another work that celebrates Madrid--more than a decade later--is one of the giddiest of zarzuelas, "La Gran Vi'a," named after the city's "Broadway." The score, by Chueca and Valverde, has been so popular that it has been one of those rare zarzuelas heard abroad. The original libretto was a satiric attack on a city government that planned to tear down the beloved streets of old Madrid to make way for the new avenue, and the first scene has the streets themselves singing. One of the most popular numbers is the "Eliseo Madrilen o," in which a servant-girl sings and dances a schottische and describes the other popular dances of her class--the haban era, the polka, the waltz. And there is an equally famous tango about the "poor girls" who slave for wealthy ladies.
As in most operettas, it is the dance rhythms behind so many of the zarzuela songs that make them so popular, and these allow choreographer Alberto Lorca and his dancers many opportunities to shine in the "Antologia." There is a flamenco from Granada (the "Tarantula Song"), a first-act devoted to the paso doble, a guajiras imported from Latin America to Spain, and no less than four jotas--from Castille, Mureia, Navarra and Aragon, respectively. By the end of the performance, one feels one has made a complete musical tour of Spain.
Zarzuela got off to a royal start in the mid-17th century, the first examples being presented before the court of King Philip IV at a hunting lodge near the Zarzuela palace. (Zarza means bramble--there was apparently considerable vegetation in the area.) During this golden age of Spanish drama, no less a dramatist than Caldero'n wrote the words for the first zarzuelas. In the "Antologia," we see a character from his "El Laurel de Apolo" (1658) describe this infant form of operetta as "not a comedy, but simply a short fable, which is sung and danced in an Italian imitation." The early Italian intermezzo was its model, but Spanish music and mannerisms eventually were grafted on, and by the mid-1800s, with the opening of downtown Madrid's Teatro de la Zarzuela, the form had become throughly nationalized.
By the turn of the century, there were literally hundreds of zarzuelas being written, generally in two forms, the grande or chico, depending on length and dramatic breadth. Offenbach's ope'ras-bouffes had an unmistakable imprint on the short comedies, while the styles of composers like Leha'r, and even Verdi and Puccini, influenced the heavier, more romantic works, which were perhaps more opera-comique than operetta. They always had dialogue, and the comic pieces often permitted boisterous verbal exchanges between the performers and audience. There were satires on contemporary plays and events, and even zarzuela versions of famous operas and operettas: "La Traviata," "H.M.S. Pinafore," and (naturally) "Carmen" all have been done as zarzuelas in Madrid.
The form was said to have died in 1936, with the Spanish Civil War, but the masterworks of the genre have remained popular all over Spain and its former empire, even the Philippines, and Cuba, which has produced a few of its own classics. The Mexico City equivalent of the Tony award was given this spring to a zarzuela.
A great revival of interest in zarzuela hit Spain around 1968, when a popular series of television films appeared. But attempts in Europe to present zarzuelas were not particularly admired, nor was a hodgepodge called "Fiesta in Madrid," produced at New York's City Center in 1969. More recently, however, a modestly scaled production of "La Corte de Farao'n" (The Pharaoh's Court) proved quite popular at New York's Repertorio Espan ol.
The Wolf Trap Foundation's executive director, Edward Mattos, has perhaps a bit more of a personal interest than usual in this Wolf Trap attraction. Having lived in Spain for five years, he cultivated a great affection for zarzuela, its verve, color, and "its incredibly rich music." It is a love he wants to share with greater Washington, and he thinks Tamayo's revue concept is ideal, with its selection of the most popular zarzuela "golden oldies."
Those wishing to delve further into zarzuela will be interested in a new series of records on the Zacosa label, now available in this country. These are the product of an advertising promotion on Spanish television involving recordings of some 100 zarzuelas. They are attractively packaged with colorful graphics and accompanying booklets (in Spanish only) with articles and plot synopses. The performances are from various sources--a few originally were recorded at least 20 years ago--but some boast such stars as Teresa Berganza, Pilar Lorengar and Alfredo Kraus, all partial to zarzuela. It's a bit difficult to choose which ones to start with, but some of the grande 19th-century works, such as Barbieri's "Jugar con fuego," would serve as a good introduction, as well as a few of the later comic items, such as the mesmerizingly catchy "Gran Vi'a." These records are available locally at the Serenade and Record and Tape stores.
They may be habit-forming.