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’.
Webber of firstname.lastname@example.org
(and the wholly admirable website http://www.zarzuela.co.uk/
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.
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!”
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!”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
Reviews of other operas by Albéniz:
Henry Clifford (1895)