Zarzuela in Nordhausen
How much do we know of Spanish zarzuelas in Britain? Almost nothing, and the same is true in Germany. Full marks, then, to the small Nordhausen company for staging Federico Morena Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda, one of the most celebrated examples of the genre, even though understandably it was given in a German translation. Zarzuelas are often characterised as Spanish operettas, but they are surely more than that. True they contain sentimental melodies, humorous, ironic episodes and the almost obligatory dances, so also colourful choral scenes, all given with a decidedly Spanish flavour. But in contrast to the central European model of operetta, there is – at least if Luisa Fernanda is typical – a darker, more serious dimension, here the tragedy of civil war, with the solo arias fully engaging the emotions. Perhaps zarzuelas are closer to the French tradition of opéra comique, Carmen for example.
The plot of Torroba’s piece is not uninteresting. A girl torn in her feelings between an army officer and a rich landowner, both of whom change their political adherence in an effort to oust their rival. In Nordhausen she was movingly portrayed by the fine soprano Sabine Noack. Sadly the tenor who was to have sung Javier, one of the lovers – the role taken by Placido Domingo in the recording of the work – was indisposed and a replacement had to perform from the wings; not, it has to be confessed, very satisfactorily. Manos Kia gave a sturdy account of his rival Vidal and in other roles there were worthy contributions from Emma Moore and Uta Haase. No doubt to guarantee some authenticity, Spaniards were given responsibility for the production (Alfonso Romero Mora) and designs (Ricardo Sánchez Cuerda). If the overall visual effects worked well, the direction of the individual participants could have benefited from sharper character delineation. The presence in the pit of the company’s musical director Michael Helmrath implied that this was not to be treated as a minor event, music-wise. And he was right. Clearly the world of zarzuelas is worth exploring in non-Spanish countries.