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Manuel PENELLA (1880-1939)
El gato montes (1916)
Juan Pons, baritone - Juanillo; Plácido Domingo, tenor - Rafael Ruiz; Verónica Villarroel, soprano - Solea; Teresa Berganza, mezzo-soprano - Gipsy; Carlos Chausson, bass - Padre Anton; Mabel Perelstein, contralto - Frasquita; Carlos Alvarez, bass - Hormigon ; Pedro Farrés, baritone - Caireles; Miguel López Galindo, baritone - Pezufio; Angeles Blancas, treble - Shepherd Boy
Chorus of the Zarzuela Theatre, Madrid
Madrid Symphony Orchestra/Miguel Roa
rec. Teatro Bulevar, Torredolones, Madrid, December 1991
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 459 427-2 [56.33 + 55.33]

This recording formed one of a series of valuable DG issues in the 1990s featuring Plácido Domingo in various Spanish-language operas, operettas and zarzuelas. When originally issued, in substantial packages including complete texts and translations, I suspect they introduced many like myself to a field of music almost totally unknown outside a band of aficionados who had already collected Spanish sets of these pieces in recordings featuring local singers and ensembles but without the necessary information for a proper appreciation of the scores. I am not sure how well these new boxed sets sold on an international scale, but it is good to see that Presto have now applied themselves to reissues of these recordings for the enjoyment and enlightenment of a new generation.

But they have severely missed a trick here. Presumably with an eye to the economy of packaging, this reissue is not of the original boxed pair of discs but of the slimline ‘DG Double’ set where the originally provided texts and translations have been jettisoned. The new listener is not altogether abandoned because the booklet does contain a quite detailed three-page synopsis of the action as well as an introductory essay – all of them provided in Spanish, English, German and French, so the needs of the international market are not wholly overlooked as with so many operatic reissues from other companies. But this synopsis is not cued with reference to the CD tracks, which are separately listed at the front of the booklet, so it remains quite tricky for the listener to keep track of the action.

And I must admit that the melodramatic action of El gato montes will certainly prove a stumbling block to many listeners, including myself, revolving as it does around the supposedly romantic lure of the barbaric world of bullfighting. The fact that Domingo’s character is gored to death by a bull at the end of Act Two will do little gratify one’s desire that he should meet some such fitting demise, when the music which accompanies the romantic entanglements of the plot is often so resolutely light-hearted and cheerful. Spanish dance rhythms abound, and the dramatic developments come thick and fast (too fast for ready comprehension from the synopsis). The title character, sung here by no less than Juan Pons, is generally more sympathetic to modern susceptibilities and the cast also features Teresa Berganza as the gipsy full of dire warnings of doom. Verónica Villaroel is delightfully sweet-toned as the wayward heroine, who also dies (of grief) at the end of Act Two; one final rather gruesome touch is provided by the dying hero who, the synopsis informs us, dies embracing her lifeless body – this after he has stolen her corpse from her funeral and carried it some miles away to his mountain lair (and in the Spanish heat, too!).

Those who speak Spanish will have no problems with the lack of translations; others may hesitate, although they will thereby miss acquaintance with a very worthwhile musical experience. Those who are allergic to spoken dialogue on disc will be pleased to discover that El gato montes is unlike the standard Spanish zarzuela in that the music is entirely through-composed. And this seemingly remains the only complete representation of any of Penella’s fifty or more operatic works in the catalogue. One certainly cannot imagine that we will ever hear a recording which will surpass this one, both in terms of casting (and the many minor roles are all more than adequately taken), enthusiastic orchestral playing, and sympathetic conducting – all in top-of-the-range DG sound. The reissue then could have been better presented, but it remains good to have it available.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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