A Spanish perfume... Zarzuela


Zarzuela is a lively genre that depicts, in a theatrical and amusing manner, many aspects of Spanish life. The Spanish musical comedy originated in Madrid, the capital, as a compendium of everything Spanish and particularly its characters, feasts, customs, anecdotes and literary forms. However, the major value of the many treasures included in the catalogue of zarzuelas still lies in the music of its popular composers.

Zarzuela as a genre -with spoken parts and sung parts- shared its period of glory with opera and with 19th century prose and verse theatre, and afterwards with the cinema early in the 20th century. Thanks to the buildings that were soon created for this popular genre, the Teatro de La Zarzuela (1856) and Teatro Apolo (1873-1929), both in Madrid, and the important theatrical companies and their many tours across Spain and America, zarzuela was disseminated throughout all the Spanish-speaking countries, reaching many spectators who received it enthusiastically. What was appealing for some was the recreation of different types of society, for others it was the remembrance of the land they had left to embark on the American adventure, or the gift from the Motherland to the lands Overseas.

Zarzuela is surprising because of its vivid artistic expression, as shown in the works by composers such as Emilio Arrieta (1823-1894), Francisco Asenjo Barbieri (1823-1893), Manuel Fernández Caballero (1835-1906), Federico Chueca (1846-1908), Tomás Bretón (1850-1923), Amadeo Vives (1871-1932), José Serrano (1873-1944), Manuel Penella (1880-1939), Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982), and Pablo Sorozábal (1897-1988), just to name a few. All of them are undisputed masters of a musical form cultivated by musicians from all over Spain, though developed for over a century mainly in Madrid.

The origins of zarzuela go back to the works of Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), set to music by Juan de Hidalgo and sung at the Palacio de la Zarzuela (« zarzuela» means « little bush» ) near Madrid at the end of the 17th century. This was followed by adaptations of Italian comedies by Ramón de la Cruz, with music by Italian composers or imitators of the Italian style, and performed at theatres in Madrid towards the end of the 18th century. Finally, early in the 19th century, the first modern zarzuelas were written, giving rise to the genuine Spanish musical comedy, with original texts and scores full of Spanish customs. The zarzuelas of those centuries are amusing stories that are appealing, according to the Valencian writer Antonio Eximeno, because the modern Spanish public has good taste and enjoys understanding the plot rather than just indulging on a mere passion for music.

«[Spaniards] enjoy -passionately, in fact- Theatre Music, but they do not sacrifice judgment to that passion; they have small musical pieces serving as intermezzos and that precisely depict musical dramas, called Zarzuelas, in which the scenes are declaimed and only the parts requiring music are sung, that is, parts where a passionate element stands out. [ ...] The entire artifice of fable, the characters, customs, etc. can be heard and understood, thereby bringing together the pleasure of listening with the education of the understanding.» (Sobre los orígenes y reglas de la música, III, 3, 1796, pp. 195-196).

Zarzuelas come in two main forms: the short or small genre, consisting of works featuring popular characters of Madrid in one act, suited for "one-hour performances," and the large genre or grand zarzuela, works in several acts resembling a full opera. But in this genre the works can also be classified according to their plot: there are typical zarzuelas set in Madrid, with genuine local language and expressions (La verbena de la Paloma, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente and La Revoltosa) and large-scale works (Doña Francisquita and La Chulapona); there are regional zarzuelas with a great deal of folklore (La del soto del Parral, La rosa del azafrán and La patria chica); and operettas looking towards Europe (La Generala, La canción del olvido and Bohemios).

Zarzuela, just as any musical genre, evolves and changes according to the taste of the spectators; in the 19th century, works such as Jugar con fuego (1851) and El dúo de La Africana (1893) were widely accepted, whereas in the 20th century the public was enthused by vaudeville-style works such as La gatita blanca (1907) and La corte de Faraón (1910).

Ever since the earliest recordings zarzuelas built on the voices of great singers; first there were artists such as Mercedes Capsir, Hipólito Lázaro, Conchita Supervía and Graziella Pareto, later on came Miguel Fleta, Marcos Redondo and Luis Sagi-Vela, among others, and at present all the most famous singers on the Spanish opera scene: Carlos Álvarez, Ainhoa Arteta, Enrique Baquerizo, María Bayo, Teresa Berganza, Montserrat Caballé, Lola Casariego, Rafael Castejón, Plácido Domingo, Alfonso Echeverría, Federico Gallar, Alfredo Kraus, Manuel Lanza, Luis Lima, Pilar Lorengar, Milagros Martín, Isabel Monar, Raquel Pierotti and Emilio Sánchez, just to name a few. Recordings have been made by conductors such as Pedro Alcalde, Ataúlfo Argenta, Rafael Ferrer, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Enrique García Asensio, Antoni Ros Marbà, Daniel Montorio, Federico Moreno Torroba, Miguel Ortega, Luis Remartínez, Miguel Roa, Pablo Sorozábal and José Luis Temes.

Zarzuelas, disseminated on the radio, at the cinema and on records, reached every corner of the Spanish-speaking world as a sign of the national identity. Because of all these reasons, knowing the treasures of the Spanish musical comedy today can lead one to discover a beautiful and amusing artistic form, a Spanish perfume... Zarzuela.