|Victor Khodadad, Costas Tsourakis, Stan Lacy, Caroline Tye, Maria Brea, Jose Maldonado, Anna Tonna,
Jay Lucas Chacon, and Brian J. Alvarado
Regular readers will recall how long we have yearned to see a zarzuela onstage with sets and costumes. For several years we have enjoyed arias and duets extracted from zarzuelas; we have attended seminars about zarzuela; we even tried to figure out how to produce one. Last night at a black box theater on the Lower East Side, our dream was realized. One of our favorite boutique opera companies--New Camerata Opera--joined forces with Latin American Theater Experiment Associates and fulfilled our dream.
The zarzuela they chose, El Barbero de Sevilla, was composed by Gerónimo Giménez and Manuel Nieto with a libretto by Guillermo Perrin and Miguel de Palacios; it premiered in Madrid in 1901 and is best known for the soprano aria "Me llaman la primorosa" which we have heard the marvelous Maria Brea sing in recital. How totally excellent it was to hear her sing the entire role of Elena, a wannabe diva who defies her strict father Nicolás (portrayed by baritone Stan Lacy) to star as Rosina in Rossini's masterpiece Il barbiere di Siviglia in a regional company in Burgos.
This gave Ms. Brea an opportunity not only to sing the afore-mentioned "Polonesa" as an interpolation for the voice lesson scene, but to also let out all the stops for "Una voce poco fa". Of course we have heard sopranos sing this mezzo role before, but we were particularly taken by Ms. Brea's ability to handle the lower register as well as committing to the firework coloratura of the cabaletta.
Similarly satisfying was the performance of baritone José Luis Maldonado who has made Figaro's "Largo al factotum" his signature piece; we never tire of hearing (and seeing) his interpretation. The joke, among many other jokes, was that he was secretly an opera singer masquerading as a surveyor--and furthermore, a baritone envious of tenors. But in this zarzuela, the baritone has the romantic lead as Elena's novio.
Two mezzo-sopranos shone in two different roles. Anna Tonna created the character of Roldán, a diva with whom Nicolás is having a clandestine affair; she exhibited all the hauteur of a diva as well as the requisite spitefulness toward a younger rival.
Caroline Tye gave a fine interpretation of Elena's mother Casimira who supports her daughter's singing career and spirits her away to Burgos in the company of Elena's voice teacher Bataglia, a role given a fine comic turn by Costas Tsourakis who plays Don Basilio in the "opera within the zarzuela", making the most of his very large hat.
There was a very funny bit of hostility between two critics--Brian J. Alvarado's Pérez of the publication Tapas Today and Victor Khodadad's López from the newspaper The Manchego Gazette. It was especially funny because we personally just adore our fellow critics and enjoy sharing ideas with them. Perhaps in early 20th c. Spain there was significant rivalry of which the librettists were poking fun.
Jay Lucas Chacon took the role of Benito, Nicolás' sidekick and we must relate how much fun it was to see all these singers we know stretch themselves in new directions.
As far as the music, zarzuela is delightfully tuneful and this one is no exception. Maestro Pablo Zinger, Mr. Zarzuela himself, performed the reduction of the score and conducted from the keyboard. The chamber orchestra comprised violin, cello, bass, flute, and clarinet. We wondered why the keyboard was chosen when there was a piano onstage. Perhaps conducting from the piano would have suffered from impaired sightlines.
Aside from the solo arias, the most delightful musical moment was the scene backstage in which all the characters were onstage at once, voices blending in charming cacophony.
As delightful as was the music, the frequent musical references to operas we know and love reminded us of how outstanding was 19th c. Italian opera. An interlude between scenes gave us the melody from Germont Père's Act II aria "Di Provenza il mar il suol", among other tributes to famed operas. The entire zarzuela can be seen as a tribute to Rossini's comedy.
Audience members who didn't know the operatic underpinnings could still enjoy the work for its engaging melodies and farcical story; but those who know and love opera could get an additional layer of pleasure from identifying the musical references.
Speaking of comedy, this piece has all of the farcical moments for which one could hope. There is the secret affair, the deceiving spouse, the lies, the coverups, the running in and out of rooms--here the various dressing rooms of the Burgos opera house--, the strict father (like Dr. Bartolo), the rebellious daughter sneaking around behind his back (like Rosina), and a facilitator (the voice teacher, unlike Don Basilio who was an obstructor to Rosina's romance).
The work was directed by Rod Gomez who chose to set the work in the 1950's, giving it the feel of a mid 20th c. sitcom. Although the Spanish was retained for the singing, dialogue was spoken in English. We got the sense that certain things that were funny in Spanish were not as funny when translated into English. There seems to be no other solution when presenting the work to a mixed audience. Although we personally can converse in Spanish, we would probably not understand rapidly spoken Spanish with wordplay and double entendres.
Aside from the ridiculously funny situations, there was an improvised moment of pure genius provided by Mr. Tsourakis who played his impresario role as Donald Trump. The audience loved it. As a matter of fact, the audience loved the entire piece and we hope this leads to more zarzuela productions in New York City.
The simple but effective set was designed by Omayra Garriga Casiano and lit by Daniela Fresard Montero. Angela Huff designed the costumes.
Mr. Zinger spoke of his many productions in the 1980's but that was before our time and we regret having missed them. For those readers who have not read our writings about zarzuela, let it be known that the art form began in Madrid in the 1640's as an entertainment for royalty. It had a welcome revival in the mid 19th c., probably as Spain's response to Italy's grand opera. It was carried to the colonies in the New World and was regularly composed and performed for the next century, particularly in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Just as Spain lies between Europe and Africa, so zarzuela lies between opera and musical comedy.
We hope we have tempted you to enjoy this wonderful art form. This weekend will see several more performances and you just may be able to snag a ticket if you move quickly, since last night was a sellout-- in spite of the rain.
(c) meche kroop