Penella’s Zarzuela La Malquerida in Valencia

La Malquerida by Manuel Penella, performed at the remarkable Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, is the second zarzuela I have seen and heard. As I pointed out in relation to Federico Morena Torroba’s better known Luisa Fernanda (http://bit.ly/2KEtxA1), it is inappropriate to characterise zarzuela as “Spanish operetta”. True, there is much spoken dialogue and parts, but only parts, of the score contain sentimental dance melodies for soloists and chorus, and some humorous, ironic episodes, all given with a decidedly Spanish flavour. But in contrast to the French and central European models of operetta, there is a darker, more serious dimension, with melodramatic arias engaging the emotions. Perhaps zarzuelas are closer to the French tradition of opéra comique, Carmen for example.

The basis of La Malquerida is a celebrated drama by Nobel prize laureate Jacinto Benavente which he co-adapted with Penella for the musical version. Indeed, with its exploration of family life and gender relations in a rural environment, the serious dimension of the piece resembles Lorca in its intensity. No doubt Penella felt bound by convention to complement the Puccinian passionate lyrical arias with the skirt-swirling interludes. Although one cannot but admire the skill with which the composer shifts from the heavier operatic musical style to that appropriate for operetta, coherence undoubtedly suffers.

That said, the Valencia performance had much to commend it. In the pivotal role of Raimunda, who regrets her second marriage and its consequences, notably the husband lusting after her daughter and ruining the chances of a worthy bridegroom for the latter, Sandra Ferrández offered a commanding interpretation, both musically and dramatically. The other leading parts were mainly sung by students from the local Centre Placido Domingo. Apart from some strained top notes, Vicent Romero was a convincing, thwarted lover of the heroine Acacia and deployed his appealing tenor to good effect. She was ably sung by María Caballero, while not entirely conveying the pathos of a young woman whose life had been wrecked by her elders. As the husband, César Méndez was insufficiently villainous. He has an attractive baritone voice but it did not have the necessary weight for the role.

The conductor Santiago Serrate and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia were first-rate, moving adeptly from the tensions of the melodrama to the relaxed, pointed rhythms and light melodic flourishes of the choral scenes. The production by Emilio López and designs of Nathalie Deana and Gabriela Salaverri may have been traditional, but they served the piece very well, not the least because they were aided by the superb lighting effects for which Sergio Gracia was responsible: predominantly sombre (as in Spanish painting) but broken up by illuminated shafts to underscore the drama.