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Lyric Drama in three acts and an epilogue
Basque libretto by Fr. José de Arrué
after the novel by Navarro Villoslada
Marco Polo CD box set: 8.225084/85 [2 hr 17 min]

Amaya - Rebecca Copley, Amagoia - Marianne Cornetti, Plácida/Olalla - Itxaro Mentxaka, Teodosio - César Hernández, Asier - Rosendo Flores, Miguel/Messenger/2nd Squire/2nd Shepherd - Carlos Conde, Uchin/1st Shepherd/Servant/A Voice - Angel Pazos, An elder - Gorka Robles
Bilbao Choral Society (Gorka Sierra, Chorus Master), Bilbao Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Theo Alcántara

Though little known to outsiders, Basque composer Jesús Guridi (1886-1961) is as much beloved in Spain as in his homeland. He is a nationalist composer in the same deep sense as Vaughan Williams was in England, rooted in folk idioms, a generous melodist, approachable but never chauvinistic, above all imbued with a strong sense of the spiritual.

His best known works are the zarzuela "El caserío" (The Homestead) and the orchestral "Diez melodías vascas" (Ten Basque Melodies) of 1941 - an inspired piece of orchestral wizardry which is at least the equal of Respighi's more familiar Ancient Airs and Dances. Some of his songs, piano and organ pieces also reside on the fringe of the international repertoire. Guridi was a conservative composer whose music often sounds closer to Dvorak or his French teachers than to Spanish contemporaries such as Falla or Sorozábal. The best of it is insinuatingly individual and lovable. All of it is well worth hearing.

I was greatly looking forward to hearing "Amaya", his operatic magnum opus written between 1910 and 1920 on themes from 6th-century Basque history. The libretto dramatises the struggle for supremacy between the old Pagan and new Christian leadership in a time when Vasconia was under threat from the Moorish hordes, and sorely in need of strong, unified leadership. This conflict is echoed in the rivalry between two suitors - Good Christian Tenor Teodosio and Bad Pagan Bass Asier - for the hand of Princess Amaya.

Guridi's craftsmanship is never in doubt; his orchestration, notably well executed by the Bilbao Orchestra, is of copybook clarity; but his best music has an uplifting, poetic sensitivity which finds too few outlets in this doom-laden, dark age myth. The lunar Pagan Rites, the surging rhythmic vitality of the Espatadantza (sword-dance) at the Wedding Feast, and the sweet but not sugary Redemption music in the Epilogue are points of light in the general gloom. His vocal writing - in so far as a non-Basque speaker can judge these things - sounds fluid and natural, but memorable moments are rare. The delicate poise of the heroine's scena before her wedding in Act 2, and Teodosio's touching narration towards the end of the opera stand out as exceptions.

It may be difficult for a non-Basque to fully appreciate "Amaya" in other ways, too. Like Smetana's masterly "Libuse", an opera which it resembles in several ways, its mythic subject matter and tableauesque nationalism lend Amaya an extra-musical significance which foreigners cannot easily comprehend. Guridi laboured hard at the opera. During the course of its (over?)long genesis his musical personality matured considerably, but even as late as 1920 his reliance on Wagnerian methods and material make parts of "Amaya" sound imitative rather than individual.

It adds to Guridi's difficulties that the libretto is clumsily structured, its focus ill-defined. Who is at the centre of "Amaya"? Not the heroine, a piece of dramatic furniture throughout. Her husband Teodosio, an Orestes who undergoes a Tannhäuser-like redemption, is more complex; the most striking dramatic event is the death-rock repentance of the pagan villain of the piece, Asier. Paradoxically, the introduction of an offstage narrative chorus in the Epilogue brings more telling musical results than the onstage characters ever manage. This lack of dramatic cogency and momentum mitigates against an undeniably absorbing and well-crafted score.

The Marco Polo performance is accomplished, with Rosendo Flores especially good as the mendacious Asier. Rebecca Copley is a clean-voiced Amaya, César Hernández a gritty but acceptable Teodosio. The other roles are strongly taken, and the studio recording made during a run of performances at the Bilbao's Teatro Arriaga in June 1998 is exemplary.

Guridi admirers will respond to Amaya's moments of dark beauty, as well as the sweetness and light of the Epilogue. Newcomers would be better advised to seek out the fully mature "Diez melodías vascas" and "Basque Scenes", available in brilliant modern sound under both Plasson and Gomez Martinez (see the brief discography below). Opera lovers should take the plunge with his great zarzuela "El caserío". Guridi working quickly with the two leading zarzuela librettists of the day, Romero and Shaw, proved a much more supple dramatist than the self-conscious operatic journeyman of "Amaya".

Christopher Webber


Select Current Discography by Christopher Webber

Orchestral and Choral

***** Claves CD 50-9709

"Diez Melodías Vascas" (1941); "Homenaje a Walt Disney" (1956) for Piano and Orchestra; "Una Aventura de Don Quixote" (1916), symphonic poem; "Euzko Irudiak" (Basque Scenes) for chorus and orchestra. Basque National Orchestra, Orfeon Donostiarra, Ricardo Requejo (piano), conducted by Miguel A. Gomez Martinez. see review

**** EMI Classics 7243 5 56876 2 3

"Agur Jaunak - Basque Music". Includes "Diez Melodías Vascas", "Euzko Irudiak" and "Goiko mendian" for a capella choir, with works by Sorozábal and others. Bilbao Choral Society, Orchestre de Capitole de Toulouse, conducted by Michel Plasson.

**** EMI Classics Mono CDM 7 64558 2

"Diez Melodías Vascas", "Amaya - Lunar Rites and Sword Dance", "Homenaje a Walt Disney". Pilar Bayona (piano), Madrid Symphony Orchestra / Spanish National Orchestra, conducted by Jesús Arámbarri.

**** BMG RCA WD 71984

"Diez Melodías Vascas", coupled with music by Albéniz and Turina. National Spanish Orchestra, conducted by Ataulfo Argenta.

Chamber and Instrumental

*** Aus-Art Records aAr 008

(Basque classical label - email:

Piano music including "Tres piezas breves", "Cantos populares vascos", "Danzas viejas", "Ocho apuntes" (Eight Etudes), "Lamento e imprecación de Agar", and "Vasconia" (3-movement Suite). Pedro José Rodriguez Larrañaga (piano).

**** RTVE Música 65039

"Danzas viejas", "Lamento e imprecación de Agar", and "Vasconia", with works by Gerhard, Brotons and Barnaola. Albert Nieto (piano).

**** Decca London Weekend Classics 436 293-2

"Viejo Zortzico" for harp, with works by Falla, Albéniz, Britten, Pierné and others. Marisa Robles (harp).

***** Ensayo ENY-CD-9706

"Complete String Quartets" (Nos. 1 & 2). Enesco Quartet.

Vocal and Operatic

***** DGG 435 848-2

"Canciones Españolas". Three songs from "Seis canciones castellanas", part of a 2-CD anthology of Spanish songs. Teresa Berganza (mezzo-soprano), Félix Lavilla (piano).

**** BMG Ariola España WD 71468

"El caserío" (1926 zarzuela). Pilar Lorengar, Manuel Ausensi, Carlos Munguia.

Coro de camera de Orfeón Donostiarra, Orquesta Sinfónica, conducted by Ataulfo Argenta

***** EMI Hispavox 5 74156

"El caserío" (1926 zarzuela). Dolores Perez, Luis Sagi-Vela, Carlo del Monte.

Coro Cantores de Madrid, Orquesta Lírica Española, conducted by Federico Moreno Torroba.

**** Homokord HC006

"La Condesa de la Aguja y el Dedal" (1946 zarzuela). Original cast recordings, coupled with music from Torroba's "Maravilla".

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