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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Pepita Jiménez (1896)
Plácido Domingo (tenor) – Don Luis de Vargas; Carol Vaness (soprano) – Pepita Jiménez; Jane Henschel (mezzo) – Antoñina; Enrique Baquerizo (baritone) – Don Pedro de Vargas; Carlos Chausson (bass) – Vicar; José Antonio López (baritone) – Count Genazahar; Federico Gallar (tenor) – 1st officer; Àngel Rodriguez (baritone) – 2nd officer
Coro de Niños de la Comunidad de Madrid
Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid/José De Eusebio
rec. Torrelodones, Madrid, Teatro Bulevar, July 2004, June 2005.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6234 [44:29 + 46:23]

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In 2009 the musical world will mark the centenary of the death Isaac Albéniz. The conductor and scholar José De Eusebio has set himself the goal of recovering the composer’s operatic and orchestral works. Pepita Jiménez is the fourth music-dramatic work thus reconstructed and the third to be recorded. Earlier Merlin and Henry Clifford have appeared on discs. A sticker on the CD box states that this is a ‘World Premiere – First Ever Complete Recording’.

Christopher Webber of (and the wholly admirable website Ed.) points out in a mail that it is in fact the third, which also Walter Aaron Clark, scholar and author of a biography on Albéniz, states in the booklet notes. This is however the first recording of the version that Albéniz himself would have recognised. José De Eusebio goes into some detail to explain his reconstruction work, going back to early sources. The two earlier recordings, revisions by respectively Pablo Sorozábal and Josep Soler, were drastically changed in relation to the composer’s original thoughts; in effect more of a reworking than a restoration. Having heard neither of the previous recordings, the oldest with Teresa Berganza made as early as 1967, I can only assess the present one in absolute terms. I suspect that those with one or the other of the predecessors in their collection will also feel that they are being served a different dish from what they have become used to.

The story, based on Juan Valera’s novel of the same title, published in 1874, and with a libretto in English by Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, takes place in a single day. It deals with the young and rich widow Pepita Jiménez who is in love with the likewise young priest-to-be Don Luis de Vargas, who in his turn is going to leave the village to fulfil his calling. In the end, after a series of complications, they fall into each others’ arms and Antoñona, Pepita’s old wet nurse, who has anticipated this, exclaims: ”O Tona! You’re a prophet!”

The literary value of the libretto is fairly slight and there is little poetry but plenty of doggerel. Try Pepita’s lines when she awakens after a fainting-fit:

                      “I’m so sorry
                       to be such a worry!”

Musically the cosmopolitan Albéniz draws on, as Walter Aaron Clark states, “three major trends in contemporary musical theatre: use of regional folkloric elements, /…/, a Pucciniesque lyricism in which the orchestra frequently reinforces the voice; and Wagnerian musico-dramatic innovations, including continuous musical commentary in the orchestra infused with musical references to places and people in the manner of Leitmotif.” 

Having lived permanently in London for several years Albéniz must also have been familiar with English music of the day and so there is probably no coincidence that I can hear echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan, or rather Sullivan-like melodic influences. Money-Coutts’ penny-plain lyrics can’t be mentioned on the same day as the witty and equilibristic Gilbert’s. Much of the vocal parts are written in a kind of continuous parlando-style with numerous condensations into arioso, often searingly beautiful but rarely developing into full arias. The voices are embedded in, but not swamped by, the lush orchestral writing, inventive and colourful and naturally with Spanish flavour. That said, I doubt that many listeners in a blind-fold test would relate the music to Spain in the first place, rather to France. Time and again one relishes a melodic fragment and expects the big aria to blossom but instead, somewhat frustratingly, the song-line relapses into parlando. It is much the same feeling as when listening to Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, where for sure Ch’ella mi creda and a couple of others finally develop, but there is also, for example, a scene with Johnson and Minnie where one hears fragments that must be pre-echoes of the great love duet; instead the inn-keeper storms in and interrupts them which, at a performance in the Arena di Verona, annoyed one onlooker so much that he loudly booed the poor inn-keeper. It is a little of that feeling I have too, being done out of it. Of course there are “numbers” but they are few and far between and fairly short. Pepita’s Do you remember, one day (CD1 tr. 13) is the first instance and Then appear’d graciously (CD1 tr. 21) is also a fine song. The scene starting I’ve come to bid farewell (CD1 tr. 23), a divorce duet if such a thing exists, is a musical high-spot with sweeping romantic outpouring.

The composer’s sensitive orchestration is perhaps best appreciated in a couple of purely instrumental pieces. These are: the prelude to act two (CD2 tr.1), colourful and with a beautifully alluring melody and a short [2:35] ballet sequence (CD2 tr. 9), one of the more memorable pieces in this work. There’s also the interlude connecting tableaux I and II of the second act, a lovely little night music, shimmering with impressionistic colour. 

The whole production is a veritable act of love on the behalf of José De Eusebio, who must have spent literally thousands of hours laboriously going through his various sources to create what ‘his baby’. He draws as far as I can understand wholly idiomatic singing and playing from the Madrid forces. There are lovely contributions from the children’s chorus in an off-stage song (CD2 tr. 8) and lively dramatic singing and acting from the adult chorus. The secondary roles are well taken by Spanish singers of some distinction with the especially pleasant baritone of José Antonio López standing out in his few phrases as Count Genazahar. Enrique Baquerizo and Carlos Chausson give expressive portraits of their characters. Expressive and dramatic in the bargain is the versatile Jane Henschel, a singer I have admired both in opera and concert. Just try her intense delivery in the scene with Don Luis in the first act (CD1 tr. 24). Don Luis is sung by Plácido Domingo who remains a phenomenon, sounding unashamedly youthful and ardent and with practically no signs of deterioration in voice production. He rarely fines down to that honeyed pianissimo that he presumably can still muster but the role hardly asks for such subtlety. 

Domingo is also the main selling point of this issue. Consequently he gets star billing on the box cover. In a perfect world the protagonist, Pepita Jiménez, should have been likewise exposed but unfortunately the once so beautiful and well modulated voice of Carol Vaness has deteriorated almost out of recognition and become shrill and wobbly. She has insight and the right intentions for sure but can no longer muster the vocal means to express them convincingly. Just as a performance of Hamlet with a poor prince can never be a success, the contribution from Vaness all but rules the whole production out of competition. It is sad that a singer I have admired for so long should end up like this. It is also sad that a recording project on which so much skill, love and engagement has been lavished should be blighted by one unhappy choice of casting. As it is there is still so much to admire, and lovers of Albéniz, Spanish music in general or opera a little off the beaten track will certainly want the set. They should also know that the booklet (160 pages really qualifies it to be entitled ‘book’) has the above-mentioned essays by Clark and De Eusebio plus synopsis and libretto in three languages: English, Spanish and French. We even get the names of all the participating members of the orchestra and the chorus.

Göran Forsling 

Reviews of other operas by Albéniz:

Henry Clifford (1895)

Merlin (1906)


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