Stage Door Review

El Huésped del Sevillano

Sunday, May 5, 2024


by Jacinto Guerrero, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin

Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

May 3-5, 2024

Chorus: “Que el baile de la Chacona / encierra la vida bona”

Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting the Canadian premiere of El Huésped del Sevillano, the 1926 zarzuela by Jacinto Guerrero. The production reinforces Toronto Operetta Theatre’s reputation as the only light opera company north of the Mexican border that make zarzuelas an integral part of its programming. As with the TOT’s previous zarzuela productions, Huésped proves to be an absolutely charming work. The piece also has a metatheatrical approach quite unusual in operetta in asking us to regard the characters as fictional.

TOT translates El Huésped del Sevillano as “The Guest at the Inn”. As it happens the name of the inn is El Sevillano, so more precisely the translation should be “The Guest at the Sevillano”. Guerrero’s librettists Enrique Reoyo and Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena have set the action in and around the Sevillano in Toledo, which up until 1561 had been the capital of Spain. It turns out that the guest of the title is none other than Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), author of Don Quixote (1605 and 1615).

Cervantes has been staying in Toledo soaking up its long history and imagining an exciting story that would involve people like those he sees around him. In the original, the character of Cervantes is not introduced until near the end of the action, at which point we realize that all we have seen so far is the story Cervantes has conceived. This plays upon the old paradox of illusion and reality, common in all literature, but particularly strong in European literature with Don Quixote as one of its primary exemplars.

Director Guillermo Silva-Marin has decided not to make us wait until Act 2, Scene 2, to meet the mysterious guest. Instead, he opens the show with him introducing himself and telling us he can transform any material into an adventure story, even that of Constancia, the dishwasher at the inn. Silva-Marin has Cervantes appear periodically throughout the piece to comment on the action and to label the characters as the kind of types one would find in an adventure story. Silva-Marin’s additions are so well conceived that it’s hard to object to them. They make explicit what is implicit in the original and help the audience understand more clearly the idea that they are watching theatre-about-theatre.

Cervantes’ story is not complicated. Our hero Juan Luis, the court painter, has been commission by the King to locate the most beautiful girl in Toledo and use her as the model for a painting of the Immaculate Virgin for the Royal Oratory. Juan Luis has initially come to see Constancia, whom rumour had crowned as the most beautiful, but when he sees Raquel, daughter of Master Andrés, the local swordsmith, he immediately falls in love and chooses her for his model. Meanwhile, his page Rodrigo has the opposite task. Having been saved from a shipwreck, he swore an oath to St. Peter to marry the plainest girl in Toldeo. Keeping his oath becomes difficult when he and Constancia see each other and fall in love. They, thus, become the typical comic counterpart of the principal serious lovers.

Silva-Marin’s Cervantes tells us he needs a villain, and that character arrives in the person of the nobleman Don Diego, who tries to abduct Raquel only to be foiled by Juan Luis. His second attempt succeeds and it becomes the task of Juan Luis and Rodrigo to rescue her.

At the end of the zarzuela Cervantes tells everyone he has written a novel about someone at the inn in Toledo – The Illustrious Dishwasher. Those familiar with Cervantes’ works beyond Don Quixote, will know that he actually did write such a novella, La illustre fregona, that was published with eleven other novellas in the collection Novelas ejemplares (1613).

TOT regulars will know what a fine composer Guerrero is from its presentation of Guerrero’s earlier zarzuela Los Gavilanes (1923) in 2016. Audiences will find El Huésped del Sevillano to be a delight from start to finish with one attractive number after the next. Given that we are watching a story-within-a-story, the music is imbued with a kind of nostalgia for the days when Toledo was at its height. Guerrero somehow conveys a feeling of unreality fitting for a story that is Cervantes’ quixotic transformation of everyday people’s lives into a romantic adventure.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the score is the spoken “Monologo” given to Cervantes in Act 2 beginning, “Pintura sobre pintura” (“Scene after scene”). Here Cervantes speaks meditatively, conjuring up the atmosphere of old Toledo. After each few lines, the orchestra illustrates in music the words Cervantes has spoken. The music is gorgeous and supremely evocative, especially as played by the TOT’s nine-member instrumental ensemble sensitively led by Kate Carver. The “Monologo” is basically an example in miniature of what the entire zarzuela is doing by transforming Cervantes’ ideas into song.

TOT favourite Tonatiuh Abrego, who was so impressive in the zarzuela La Verbena de la paloma last year, is equally outstanding as Juan Luis in Huésped. Debonaire and with a fine Italianate tenor, Abrego ably renders both the heroic “Canto de la Espada” (“Song of the Sword) as well as the romantic “Mujer de los negros ojos” (“Woman with the dark eyes”), the show’s two major hits. Abrego sings the frequent high notes and the long-held notes that Guerrero demands with absolute ease.

As his beloved Raquel, Lucia Santilly sports a strong, bright coloratura soprano, one that only becomes more rounded in sound the higher she goes. She gives a moving account of Raquel’s main song “La pena me hace llorar” (“Sorrow makes me weep”). Santilly and Abrego’s voices blend well in their duet “Insolente, presumindo” in which mutual hatred of Don Diego turns to an expression of love for each other.

Diana Di Mauro as Constancia and Alexander Cappellazzo as Rodrigo form the typical comic couple who parallel an operetta’s principal couple. Their best moments are when Rodrigo disguised as a monk takes Constancia’s confession. The point of the confessional is playfully turned about since Constancia uses the situation to confess her love and it is she, the nominal penitent, who absolves Rodrigo, the nominal confessor, of his oath. Di Mauro has a vivacious presence but her delicate soprano does not always carry past the orchestra. Cappellazzo has a agile voice, one that is pleasantly fuller than one normally finds in those playing comic tenor roles.

Stuart Graham, played comic Don Hilarion in La Verbena de la paloma, return in Huésped as the villain Don Diego. His sternness of countenance is matched by the firmness of his baritone. Graham does not need to exaggerate Don Diego’s malign intentions since he has four henchmen in Zorro-like costumes to do that for him.

One of the many unusual aspects of Huésped is that it features a spoken role as important as any of the singing roles. That is, of course, the role of the illustrious “huésped” himself, Cervantes. Sean Curran gives a thoroughly delightful performance that brings out the sly playfulness of the famous author as well as a love for his characters and a deep nostalgia for the long history of Toledo, which, for him, embodies all that is truly Spanish.

Every time the TOT has ventured into the Spanish repertoire, I have felt grateful to hear these eminently tuneful works that other light opera companies so inexplicably ignore. Other operettas like Franz Lehár’s Friederike (1928) have featured a great author as a character (in Lehár’s case it is Goethe) but treat the author as the romantic hero which inevitably diminishes the author’s stature. El Huésped del Sevillano takes a much more satisfying approach in looking at how Cervantes’ imagination transformed the reality around him into fiction. Silva-Marin alters the ending and replaces the orchestral seguidilla with a reprise of the piece’s liveliest choral song with the refrain “Que el baile de la Chacona / encierra la vida bona” (“Dancing the chaconne makes life good”). By having Curran as Cervantes join in, Silva-Marin links the author with both his inspiration and creations in a joyous celebration of theatre itself. This is a work and a production I feel very lucky to have seen. Let’s hope it comes around again.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Sean Curran as Cervantes; Tonatiuh Abrego as Juan Luis and Lucia Santilly as Raquel; Tonatiuh Abrego as Juan Luis (Everly Conrad-Baldwin in background); Alexander Cappellazzo as Rodrigo and Diana Di Mauro as Constancia. © 2024 Gary Beechey.

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