Stage Door Review 2023

La Verbena de la Paloma

Sunday, May 7, 2023


by Tomás Bretón, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin

Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

May 5-7, 2023

Don Hilarión: “Oh, qué noche me espera”

If you want to know why La Verbena de la Paloma (The Festival of the Dove) from 1894, is generally considered the greatest of all zarzuelas, you need only attend a performance of its Canadian premiere byToronto Operetta Theatre. The piece is unfailingly melodic with one memorable tune after another and its portrait of everyday life in Madrid, amusing and gently satirical, is really a celebration of the spirit of all Madrileños. The playing from the nine-member ensemble conducted by Kate Carver from the piano is crisp and lively and the singing by the principals almost all with Latin American roots is full of passion.

The zarzuela is the Spanish version of operetta which began in the 17th century and continues to be written to this day. In 2016 I saw the zarzuela Juan José by Pedro Sorozábal written in 1968 at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid built in 1856 and dedicated to the form. The 2022/23 season at La Zarzuela included premieres of two brand new zarzuelas. Nevertheless, the form is largely unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world and if it were not for the efforts of the TOT, it would likely be unknown in Canada. The TOT presented its first zarzuela, Luisa Fernanda (1932), in 1997 and has presented four more fully staged works along with several zarzuela revues since.

La Verbena de la Paloma by Tomás Bretón (1850-1923) was an instant hit in its own day and continues to be the most performed zarzuela in the Spanish-speaking world. It has a very simple plot that functions primarily as a thread to link a series of musical sketches of the inhabitants who frequent the Calle de la Paloma in Madrid. The street features a statue of the Virgin Mary said to have miraculous powers and an annual verbena or festival is held August 14-15 to celebrate it.

The very first scene amply illustrates why La Verbena is considered a masterpiece. Breton begins with a comic discussion between two elderly men, the apothecary Don Hilarión and Don Sebastián, about various remedies and their effectiveness, then switches to our hero Julián complaining to a barmaid about his beloved’s recents lies, then switches to the magistrate Don Andres playing cards with two policemen, then to the night watchman and his wife singing about putting their baby to bed, then to people buying churros. These different characters all represent life on La Paloma and to highlight the fact Bretón then mingles the songs of all five groups in an intricate and masterful ensemble that concludes with everyone singing the seguidillas of the title, “Por ser la Virgen / de la Paloma” about going to the festival.

Julián is angry because his beloved Susana has been riding in a carriage with Don Hilarión and her sister Casta. Don Hilarión, an old roué, tries to decide which of the two sisters he likes better. Meanwhile, Susana is pleased that Julián is angry because his jealousy shows how strong his love is for her. However, when Julián actually tries to attack Don Hilarión physically and when her aunt Antonia has Julián arrested for being drunken and disorderly, Susana realizes she has pushed him too far.

Like operettas in the rest of Europe, the songs are based on dance rhythms. Spain, however, being isolated by the Pyrenees and occupied for so long by the Moors, developed a large number of dances that never made their way to ballrooms north of the mountains except in tone poems about Spain by French composers. Those who know the sounds of Spanish classical music only though Bizet’s Carmen or through Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso should be pleased finally to hear Spanish music by a Spanish composer.

Silva-Marin has assembled a strong cast for the show. Tonatiuh Abrego, a dashing young Ottawan with roots in El Salvador, has a ringing, Italianate tenor that conveys all the heartache that Julián feels in his main aria “También la gente del pueblo”. As Julián’s love-interest Susana, Columbian-Canadian Margie Bernal has a strong, dark soprano well paired with the lighter, bright soprano of Mexican-Canadian Olivia Maldonado as Susana’s sister Casta. Mezzo Katherine Lynn Barr well plays Julián’s main confidante Rita, and the two have a lovely duet where Rita tries to calm Julián’s jealousy. In Bretón’s typically accumulative fashion, this duet grows to become a grand habanera involving ten characters and eventually the whole chorus.

The showstopper of the evening is the soledad “¡Ay! En Chiclana me crié”. In the original Susana and Casta’s aunt Antonia listen to a flamenco singer in a café. Silva-Marin has transferred the song to Antonia and mezzo Karen Bojti sings it magnificently with all the longing such a song should have. Enhancing her performance is the presence of flamenco dancer Elena la Comadre, who embodies the seriousness and mystery of the music through her poise, foot stamping and elegant hand gestures. This is a complex piece just like the zarzuela’s opening number where the song intricately shifts from the solo singer to small ensemble to chorus and back to the solo singer.

On the comic side of the story is baritone Stuart Graham, who delivers his coplas “Tiene razón don Sebastián” with such elegance and a little dance that he seems like a Spanish Maurice Chevalier. More heavy-handed is Mexican-Canadian Cesar Bello, who wields his hefty baritone as Don Andres the magistrate.

From the clarity and lilt the ensemble gives the lovely preludio under conductor Kate Carver, we know we are in good hands. For the scenes originally set in a café, Carver switches from conducting the ensemble to playing the piano, sometimes with single violin accompaniment. In one lively number the ensemble contribute rhythmic clapping as one might hear in a café setting.

The whole piece, though under two hours, is such a breath of fresh air that it feels like a short vacation to a sunny clime. Silva-Marin has made the wise decision to have all the singing done in Spanish (with English surtitles) and the spoken dialogue in English, though there is very little of it. The diction of the soloists and the chorus is so clear that if you know Spanish you may find you really don’t need the surtitles at all.

As far as I can tell, the Toronto Operetta Theatre is the only light opera company north of the Mexican border that made zarzuelas an integral part of its programming. There was a group in Los Angeles that tried to mount an annual zarzuela festival that is no more. There is a company in Miami that tries to include zarzuela with opera, but its productions are presented in concert with only piano accompaniment.

Therefore, we in Toronto should realize how lucky we are to have a company like the TOT to serve as a gateway to this enormous wealth of music theatre so beloved in Spain and Latin America. The TOT’s El Barberillo de Lavapiés in 2005, Luisa Fernanda in 2011, Los Gavilanes in 2016 and now La Verbena de la Paloma have made me look forward to every zarzuela the TOT programmes. What a treat it was to find out on opening night that the TOT plans another zarzuela, El Huésped del Sevillano (The Guest at the Sevillano Inn), the masterpiece of José Guerrero, for 2024. It is always a pleasure finally to hear great works that custom and circumstance have denied us.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Karen Bojti as Antonia and Elena la Comadre as a flamenco dancer; Tonatiuh Abrego as Julián, Margie Bernal as Susana and Karen Bojti as Antonia; Margie Bernal as Susana and Tonatiuh Abrego as Julián with Karen Bojti as Antonia (under their arms). © 2023 Gary Beechey.

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