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 San Sebastian Quincena Musical 2009 (1) - J.M. Usandizaga, Las Golondrinas: Soloists, Orquesta y Coro Nacional de España.Conductor: Rubén Gimeno. Auditorio Kursaal de San Sebastián. 22. 8.2009 (JMI) 

Concert Version.


Puck: José Antonio López.
Lina: Isabel Monar.
Cecilia: Ana Ibarra.
Roberto: Stefano Palatchi.
Juanito: Agustín Prunnell-Friend.

This year the Quincena Musical Donostiarra in San Sebastian is giving special attention to Basque Opera Composers, offering form of concert performances – of Escudero’s Gernika and Usandizaga’s Las Golondrinas (The Swallows).

The case of José María Usandizaga is very special. He died aged only 28 in 1915, having left some most promising works to posterity and in a very short time he became a genuine point of reference in Basque and Spanish music. Despite the fact that his work was never terribly well known by most people, he achieved a popularity among those that did hear his music that very few artists have enjoyed.

Usandizaga was a product of his time and a contemporary of verismo opera. Las Golondrinas is based on a work by Santiago Rusiñol called “Aves de paso” or “Birds of passage”, written in collaboration with Gregorio Martinez Sierra (or rather, with Sierra’s wife Maria). The Martínez-Sierras later wrote an opera libretto on the same subject. The musical work conforms to the purest verista style and was premiered as a zarzuela – with spoken dialogues - in Madrid one year before Usandizaga’s death. His brother Ramón Usandizaga rewrote it adapting the spoken texts to music and changing some scenes, making the work a true opera, which was premiered at Barceona’s Liceu in 1929.

As far as I can remember the last performance of the opera took place 10 years ago in Madrid’s Teatro Real, in a production by José Carlos Plaza, conducted by Manuel Galuff and a decent - better than average - cast led by Vicente Sardinero. Perfoming the opera again, even in a concert version, was a good idea especially in the city where the composer was born.

Las Golondrinas
is best summed up as a very promising work by a young composer, with a well constructed score, some rich orchestration, but which is little short of inspiration here and there, although it contains some brilliant pages, particularly Puck’s aria in the first act and the better known orchestral section “La Pantomima”. The fact that the bears more than a passing similarity to Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci explains to some extent the fact why this particular swallow never flew too high.

The San Sebastian version was well served in purely musical terms, while the vocal cast was sadly mostly inadequate. La Orquesta Nacional de España is one of the best orchestra’s in the country and played the work immensely competently; without a doubt the best playing that anyone present at Kursaal could remember. The orchestra’s musical director, the Catalan Josep Pons, was unable to conduct however due to a sudden and acute kidney condition so an emergency replacemnt had to be found. The baton was offered to the young conductor Rubén Gimeno who did much more than save the concert. He produced a vivid and rich version of the opera, although with some lack of control of the orchestral sound that did not always help the singers, particularly those who were the weakest. The Coro Nacional de España was excellent too.

The protagonist Puck was baritone José Antonio López, who was full of good intentions, but who sang rather coarsely. Isabel Monar was a totally miscast Lina. She is a light soprano, while the role demands a true spinto voice. The deficits were very noticeable in the middle and lower ranges and her high also notes suffered more than once. I recall María José Montiel singing the part at the Teatro Real and by comparison she sounded like a genuine falcon.

The role of Cecilia is written for a true mezzo soprano but was taken here by Ana Ibarra, a soprano who lost her high notes some time ago, a fact that does not make her a mezzo now. The bass Stefano Palatchi was a mediocre Roberto and Agustín Prunnell-Friend (Juanito) was inaudible most of the time. The most appropriate voice in the cast was Carlos García Parra, a member of the chorus who sang the small role of ‘ a gentleman.’

The concert featured was accompanied by projections about Circus life and the Kursaal Auditorium was full. The audience public showed great satisfaction with the final outcome, giving a warm reception to the conductor, orchestra and choir. The soloists raised little enthusiasm, obviously.

José M Irurzun


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