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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Emilio ARRIETA (1823–1894)
La conquista di Granata - opera in three acts (1850)
Mariola Cantarero (soprano) – Xulema; Ana Ibarra (mezzo) – Isabel; José Bros (tenor) – Gonzalo; Ángel Ódena (bass-baritone) – Lara; David Rubiera (baritone) – Boabdil; Alastair Miles (bass) – Muley-Hassem; David Menéndez (bass) – Alamar; María José Suárez (soprano) – Almeraya; Tomeu Bibiloni – Officer; Juan Antonio Sanabria, Tomeu Bibiloni – Sentries
Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid/Jesús López Cobos
rec. live, 7, 9 July 2006, Teatro Real of Madrid
Italian libretto with English translation enclosed
DYNAMIC CDS618/1-2 [56:22 + 77:05]
Experience Classicsonline

Born to a very poor family in Navarra in 1823 (some sources say 1821) Emilio Arrieta was given lessons by his sister whereupon he was able to study at the Conservatory in Milan. In 1845 he wrote an opera to a libretto by Temistocle Solera, who a couple of years earlier had done the same service for Verdi’s Nabucco. The opera, Ildegonda, was warmly received and back in Spain he was summoned to court by the young queen Isabella II. Supported by the queen he had a theatre built in the Royal Palace, where he staged Ildegonda in October 1849. It was a success and the queen then commissioned a new opera to celebrate the conquest of Granada in 1492 by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Solera, who at the time was in Spain, again wrote the libretto and the opera, La Conquista di Granata was premiered at the Teatro del Real Palacio in Madrid on 10 October 1850, a month and a half after Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar and a month before Verdi’s Stiffelio in Trieste. It was staged again five years later but after that it slept for more than 150 years before it was revived in 2006: the performances from which this recording is taken. There was a third Italian opera planned, also to a Solera libretto, but it never came to anything. In due time Arrieta was appointed professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatory, became director in 1868 and devoted himself to composing zarzuelas. One source lists twenty-eight works in this genre.
Trained in Italy he was naturally influenced by the country’s operatic masters and listening to some random numbers from La Conquista di Granata it is easy to believe that they might be from some hitherto unknown opera by the young Verdi. According to Danilo Prefumo’s informative liner-notes, from which I have culled most of the above information, Arrieta must have met Verdi during his years in Milan. But the music is far from only ‘Verdi with water’; there are personal touches as well and there is also a flavour of Spain.
The libretto is good, Solera being a man of the theatre, and there are no longueurs. The story is mainly as follows, in a compact version:
Gonzalo, a Christian knight, loves princess Zulema, daughter of Muley-Hassem and his Christian wife Leonor, and sister of the warrior Almanzor. The two siblings are also brother and sister of Boabdil, the last Nazarene king. The Catholic kings have launched a siege against the Alhambra, the last Muslim stronghold. Almanzor challenges Queen Isabella’s champion to a duel. The Queen gives the honour to Gonzalo, who doesn’t wish to kill the brother of the woman he loves. In his place his friend Lara fights and Almanzor is killed.
In act II Gonzalo manages to get into the enemy camp in disguise and explains to Zulema that he didn’t kill her brother. Gonzalo then comes before Muley-Hassam and declares that he was guilty of the killing but Lara intervenes and tells the truth. Muley-Hassam is moved by the courage of the two friends and frees them.
In the third act Muley-Hassam and Zulema have been imprisoned and the enemy ask for a truce in exchange for Zulema. Zulema has secretly converted to her mother’s faith and tried to convert her father as well, which he does. The door is flung open and in comes Gonzalo, declaring that the Christians have won. The opera ends with a hymn to the Cross, the Christian symbol.
In this dramatic context there is even room for a scene in the opening of act III where Isabella, in a vision, relates a conversation with Columbus. ‘Fly, Columbus!’ she says, ‘Show the mocking masses unknown shores …’ The conquest of Granada may have fallen into oblivion after more than five centuries, but Columbus’s feat is very vivid in people’s memories and firmly places the story of the opera in its proper context.
The orchestral writing is expert and Arrieta’s melodic invention is attractive. The prelude in ¾-time is catchy and the opening chorus, also in ¾-time, is very Verdian, especially the lively second half. Generally the chorus have important contributions, not least the concluding hymn, which has a striking theme. One of the finest pieces in this score is the intermezzo with a finely played flute solo. There are also several excellent arias, among which Gonzalo’s glowing Io l’odio di quell’angelo (CD tr. 9) can be favourably set beside many of the young Verdi’s finest efforts.
Recorded live during two concert performances in July 2006 the sound is excellent and both orchestra and chorus acquit themselves well under the leadership of the experienced Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a one-time student with Hans Swarowsky and since 2003, music director of the Teatro Real.
The solo singing is more variable. Mariola Cantarero as Zulema is technically accomplished. She is dramatically convincing and nuances well but her tone is rather hard and strident. She also suffers from a wide vibrato. Her long aria in the last act, Nella terra di Giudea (CD 2 tr. 22), is however sensitively sung with feeling. As Isabel Ana Ibarra sports a vibrant mezzo-soprano. This is slightly hard but she sings well and her highlight is the opening scene of act III, where the aria Sola, io sola la scintilla dell’italico compreso (I alone understood the brilliant idea of the Italian man) (CD 2 tr. 11) – the Italian man being Columbus.
The deeper male voices are well inside their roles but head and shoulders above the rest, vocally speaking, is Alastair Miles as Muley-Hassem. Authoritative and sonorous he belongs among the best of present-day basses and his act III aria La sposa mia sul culmine (CD 2 tr. 21) shows him to good advantage. The real star of the performance is however José Bros as Gonzalo. His voice has grown considerably in volume as well as brilliance since I heard him as Nemorino at Covent Garden about a decade ago. His recitative and aria in act I (CD 1 trs. 8-9) find him in superb form and he is luminous in the last act duet with Isabel (CD 2 tr. 13 – 16).
Even though it won’t be another 150 years before this opera is performed again it will probably not be a frequent visitor to either opera house or concert platform, so lovers of mid-19th century Italian opera should grab the opportunity to hear this recording. Admirers of José Bros have presumably already placed their orders.
Göran Forsling


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