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Tomas BRETON (1850 - 1925)
La Verbena de la Paloma

Susana – Maria Bayo
Julian – Placido Domingo
Sena Rita - Raquel Pierotti
Casta – Silvia Tro
Don Hilarion – Rafael Castejon
Don Sebastian – Jesus Castejon
Tia Antonia – Ana Maria Amengual
Cantaora – Milagros Martin
Sereno – Enrique Baquerizo
Guardia 1 – Juan Jesus Rodriguez
Guardia 2 – Alberto Rios
Tabernero – Alfonso Echeverria
Mozo 1 – Ramon de Andres
Mozo 2 – Marin Grijalba
Portero - Juan Jesus Rodriguez
Portera – Maria Luisa Maesso
Vecino – Maria Carmen Campos Ros
Vecino – Alfredo Garcia Huerga
Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid
Orquesta Sinfonic de Madrid/Antoni Ros Marba
Recorded April 1994, Autidorio de la ONCE, Madrid
NAÏVE V4895 [45.32]

A verbena is a popular Madrid festival, with dancing and fair attractions, drinks and food. All the verbenas are related to a religious festival, so the title of this piece refers to that of the Paloma, an image of the Virgin of Solitude. But this is not a religious work, it is one of the best know zarzuelas by the Spanish composer Tomas Breton. Breton composed many other works (and other zarzuelas) but it is with this work that his name is most often associated.

‘La Verbena de la Paloma’ is a zarzuela of the type known as genero chico, a one act comedy which could contain as much or as little music as was necessary. Some of these one act comedies had virtually no music, or just one musical piece which could be omitted if the theatre had no orchestra. The more complicated ones are effectively short comic operas, and this is the case here where ‘La Verbena de la Paloma’ (one of the most complicated works in this genre) contains 12 substantial musical numbers. It is also full of the most curious characters. Where else do you get a typesetter hero and a randy, elderly chemist?

The action of the opera takes place on the night of the Virgin of the Paloma, August the 14th. Julian is a young typesetter who works in a printing house. He is in love with Susana, but very jealous which makes Susana suffer so she decides to get back at him. Susana lives with her sister Casta and their aunt, Antonia (an unpleasant woman). The nearby chemist, Don Hilarion is a randy old man who protects the two sisters (and flirts with them). Next to the chemists is the tavern whose owner is married to Rita, Julian’s godmother who advises him to leave Susana. Julian is always complaining and he threatens to make a scene if his jealousy of Susana is found to be justified.

As can be seen, there is quite a large cast for such a small opera. Breton makes a great virtue of this feature and there are very few real solos. All the action takes places in the context of the neighbourhood and solos develop into ensembles or have activity in the background. This gives the music a real ensemble feel and it needs a good ensemble cast to bring it off. Here, the opera is sung by a group of Spanish singers who sound as if they have been singing Zarzuela all their life, and they probably have. They work well as a company and the two leads, played by Placido Domingo (singing what sounds like a baritone role) and Maria Bayo, slot into it well and provide good ensemble performances without any starry bad manners. The opera is presented without dialogue. In principle, I prefer operettas performed with their dialogue. But given my complete lack of Spanish, I was moderately happy just to be listening to Breton’s fascinating score.

The opera opens with the prelude, a lively pot-pourri of tunes from the main numbers in the work. It is given an infectious performance by the Orquesta Sinfonic de Madrid. This is followed by a striking extended scene which is a tri-partite ensemble using three different groups of people (Don Hilarion and his cronies, Julian and Rita, the tavern Landlord and his customers). This is followed by Julian’s romance, ardently sung by Domingo. He sounds a little understated, perhaps due to the baritonal register of the part or perhaps just from care not to over-dominate. Even here, the other groups on stage comment and form an attractive background.

In a solo for Don Hilarion, about his love for women. Rafael Castejon as Don Hilarion has a voice that is now possibly more buffo than bass, but this hardly matters in his wonderfully idiomatic performance.

The next number introduces further interesting strands to the ensemble as a singer inside the Melilla Café sings to piano accompaniment. Milagros Martin gives a throatily effective performance of the song and then gradually other characters take up the tune and it develops into a lively ensemble.

There follows a pause, a nocturne for the Night Watchman and two guards. Enrique Baquerizo is highly effective in the half sung, half spoken parlando of the Night Watchman.

In a lively scene for Don Hilarion and the two sisters. Maria Bayo as Susana sparkles beautifully and gives shapely but sparky performance. Now a mazurka (on violin and piano) comes from the café. As with the earlier café scene, the cast dance to the music and gradually take it over. Julian and Rita’s duet is crisp with tension but this duet gradually develops into dialogue and ensemble.

The next number, which is a quintet, is a highly effective and sophisticated piece. Don Hilarion sings with the two sisters (Susana and Casta) but their lighthearted song is interrupted periodically by Julian and Rita. The composer here is responsive to the needs of the drama and as Don Hilarion has his path blocked by Julian (who wants to accompany Susana himself), so Hilarion’s joyful song stops suddenly.

The final scene is a long, concerted Habanera during which Breton brilliantly manipulates his musical material and the attendant drama. As on the rest of this recording, the cast make a fine ensemble and give a sparkling account of this lovely finale.

This is a highly recommendable recording. It naturally recommends itself to lovers of zarzuela but also makes an ideal introduction to those who are new to the genre.

Robert Hugill



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