As part of the Iberica 2012 Early Music Festival, Bostonians were given a rare opportunity to hear selections from 17th- and 18th-century Spanish opera and Zarzuela. El Fuego Early Music Ensemble performed its program on Saturday, August 18th, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain at 5:30 and again at 8:00; I head the latter performance. Excerpts were heard from three works: an opera (or “harmonic drama”) and a Zarzuela by José de Nebra, a/k/a José Melchor Gaspar Nebra Blasco (1702-1768), and a Zarzuela by Antonio de Literes (1673-1747).
I would venture to say that the majority of Americans familiar with the term “Zarzuela” believe that the form originated in the 19th century. In actuality, there are two periods of Zarzuela, the earlier of which goes back at least to 1629; its mid-18th-century demise was hastened by the increased influence of Italian opera including, ironically enough, the works of José de Nebra. After lying fallow for roughly a century, the Zarzuela was revived in the midst of a new and powerful national movement. This form, certainly the more familiar, is a different animal from the earlier one. Its libretti abandon the mythological themes of 18th-century works, it dispenses with Baroque conventions such as the da capo aria, and its instrumentation is of course more modern. El Fuego and its director, Salomé Sandoval, therefore rendered a valuable service in allowing many listeners to discover the older, less widely known type of Zarzuela.
We began with one of José de Nebra’s Italian-influenced operas, Amor aumenta el valor (Love magnifies courage) which was premiered in Lisbon in honor of the 1728 double betrothal of the heirs apparent of Spain and Portugal to the respective infantas. Its plot, taken from Livy’s history of Rome’s early years, concerns the heroic defense of Rome by Horatius (here Horacio) against Lars Porsenna (Porsena) leading the Etruscans. The orchestration here was reduced from a chamber orchestra to a pair of violins, baroque cello, and harpsichord, but it mostly worked well. What did not work so well was to have a single singer portray both main antagonists. It is true that in Spanish opera and Zarzuela of the period, all sung roles were reserved for women; hence, all male characters are “pants roles.” However, even in an unstaged, recital performance of excerpts, it was decidedly odd to see the same person depict two adversaries without so much as a change of costume. In purely musical terms, though, Salomé Sandoval sang with full, clear tone and elegant style as both Horacio and Porsena, particularly in Horacio’s aria when imprisoned. A pair of recorders added their mournful color here, and the word-painting of separating the syllables of “suspiras” (sighs), as if sobbing, was quite affecting.
Ifigenia en Tracia (Iphigenia at Tauris) (1747), also by de Nebra, is a fine example of the mélange typical of a Baroque Zarzuela libretto. Following only the bare outlines of Euripides’ tragedy, the plot here involves Iphigenia and Orestes as lovers (who only later discover they are siblings separated at birth) and as antagonists. She is a priestess of Diana whose statue he has stolen from the temple, and therefore she must sentence him to death. But inserted in the midst of this heavy drama is Cofieta, a stock gracioso (jester) character who provides comic relief. Sopranos Camila Parias and Salomé Sandoval, as Iphigenia and Orestes respectively, worked well together in their duet, clearly delineating the alternating moods of bitter reproachfulness and ardent longing. The two singers’ infrequent eye contact (during instrumental interludes), however, made one aware that a whole other dimension of expressivity could have been added if they had been off book and free to use hands and eye contact all through. Mezzo Teri Kowiak was mildly amusing in Cofieta’s advice to beware of professional matchmakers. These old women whose “teeth chatter like castanets” easily sell an eager young girl on a “hot boy [who] turns out to be a demon!” In no time she finds herself a sleep-deprived new single mother with a toothache, holes in her skirt, “ragged and regretful.” Yet, given that the scene’s stark incongruity with the main plot was the intent of composer and librettist, it seemed as though an opportunity to be an over-the-top jester was not fully taken.
The second half was devoted to the Zarzuela Acis y Galatea (1708) by Antonio de Literes. Sandoval, Parias, and Kowiak here took on supporting roles (largely comic) as well as forming something of a Greek chorus while countertenor Martin Near and soprano Erika Vogel sang the title characters (Near in the ironic position of a man in a pants role!). The opening chorus, “No wrath is more to be feared”, was an attractive blend of Baroque opera and proto-flamenco, adding Baroque guitar and castanets to the instrumentation and employing such recognizable Spanish rhythms as hemiolas.
Near has a voice of admirable purity and control, spinning out handsome legato lines with a natural rise and fall. Acis’s first aria, “Woe to him”, is a lament that he ever made light of the power of love as he is now fully ensnared. Near’s conception of Acis here was an introverted one — no problem, in principle —but to such a degree that it risked being dramatically inert. This impression was perhaps aggravated by the singer’s, to put it kindly, understated diction. Since Acis’s second aria, “Divine Galatea”, is addressed to his beloved rather than to himself, Near’s range of expression was perceptibly greater, and his dying farewell in the third aria, “Go in peace”, was restrained but moving.
As Galatea, Vogel gave an expressive and involving account of “Mute image”, but her second aria, “Heaven must turn to sea”, is the showstopper with its depiction of stormy seas. Vogel contributed a strong performance, notable for excellent coloratura technique and unstinting dramatic power as Galatea declares her love in grand operatic style.
The extensive program notes were interesting and informative regarding this little-known repertoire. The libretto translations were necessary, and all non-Spanish-speakers were glad of their presence, but surely they could have been proofread. It was unfortunate they were so strewn with solecisms and highly stilted language that occasionally went beyond comprehensibility (“For why should be he dumb who is bale, though without soul or breath, to persuade, convince and command?”).
The instrumentalists deserve hearty praise for their command of Baroque and Spanish style and their vital contributions to mood-painting: Lisa Brooke and Karen Burciaga, violins, Dan Meyers, recorder and castanets, Elizabeth Hardy, recorder and bassoon, Emily Davison, Baroque cello, Sarah Hager, harpsichord, and Salomé Sandoval, Baroque guitar. I hope Iberica Early Music Festival and El Fuego Early Music Ensemble will continue to explore this rewarding repertoire and perhaps even stage a complete Zarzuela in the near future.
Iberica 2012 continues through Aug. 29th.