There have been numerous Spanish publications on Zarzuela Moderna but until very recently there was little in English. Louise Stein covered the Zarzuela Antigua remarkably in her Songs of Mortals, Dialogues of the Gods (Music and Theatre in Seventeenth Century Spain, Clarendon, 1993) but for the 'modern' genre, English-speakers could only rely on the 30 to 40 entries found in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians or the New Grove Dictionary of Opera and a handful of doctoral dissertations that have recently been published. In Kurt Gänzl and Andrew Lamb's Book of the Musical Theatre (Schirmer, 1989), only 23 out of a total of 1,353 pages are devoted to Spanish Zarzuela Moderna. Andrew Lamb’s more recent 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre (Yale, 2000) devotes only 8 out of 380 pages to Zarzuela Moderna.
In terms of publications in English, the year 2002 was a turning point for Zarzuela: two books were published -- each one complementing the other in terms of content and its treatment, each one the first of its kind and each one devoted exclusively to Zarzuela Moderna. They are: Zarzuela. The Spanish Lyric Theatre: A Complete Reference authored by this reviewer and released by Australia’s University of Wollongong Press (776 pp, ISBN 0 86418 700 9); and Christopher Webber’s The Zarzuela Companion published by Scarecrow Press.
To set the subject of this review in its context, it is necessary -- at the risk of some personal immodesty -- to note the range of my own work so as to show how Webber’s book is complementary to it. Zarzuela. The Spanish Lyric Theatre (2nd ed. 2003) is a three-part 766 page comprehensive reference work on Zarzuela: the first part (100 pages) covers a well-footnoted history of the genre; part two contains the biography and catalogue of works of 91 composers and 72 librettists; and, part three contains synopses, a discography, bibliography, a chronological table of the history of Zarzuela and an alphabetical index of more than 3,300 zarzuelas including sub-genre variants and foreign adaptations.
Webber’s Zarzuela Companion, with a foreword by Plácido Domingo and a 10-page brief history of the genre to the present, puts its emphasis on the second section which contains the biographical sketch of 23 major composers of Zarzuela Moderna, detailed synopses of 60 of their major zarzuelas and brief plot outlines of 70 additional zarzuelas. The third section of the book gives abridged biographical sketches of 16 minor 19th Century composers and 5 brief synopses; section four continues with 13 more synopses of 20th Century minor composers and 5 summary plot outlines. Section five gives an overview of Catalan Zarzuela with 8 biographical sketches of composers and 4 synopses; section six gives an overview of Zarzuela in Cuba with biographical sketches of 3 composers and 5 synopses; section seven contains biographical sketches of 16 librettist; and section eight gives a succinct biographical sketch of 35 Zarzuela singers past and present. The book concludes with a 10-page select discography, a 2-page bibliography and a 4-page glossary of Spanish terms.
The uniqueness and merit of Webber’s book lie in the ample descriptions and wealth of details given in the Zarzuela synopses -- Zarzuela, in its broad generic sense; sub-genre variants are not always or clearly identified. Nonetheless, Webber has at last made available to Anglophones what for many years was only available to native Spanish Zarzuela enthusiasts in Alier, Aviñoa and Mata’s Diccionario de la Zarzuela (Barcelona, Ediciones Daimon, Manuel Tamayo, 1986) and whose format Webber seems to parallel. His synopses and plot outlines are unlaboured and flowing, leaving the reader to reap the benefits of his experience and background as a writer, translator, actor, stage director. His incidental information on parallels, sources, stage productions outside of Spain goes well beyond what one finds on recording jackets -- if one can find the recording! More informative yet are the critical comments on the relationship between Zarzuela text and its accompanying music, the relationship between the librettist and the composer. Quite noteworthy are the descriptions and analyses given on Fernández Caballero’s Los Sobrinos del Capitan Grant (p. 100), Luna’s El Asombro de Damasco (pp. 154-5), Moreno Torroba’s La Chulapona (p. 174 ff), Sorozábal’s Black el payaso (pp. 211-2) … to mention a few.
The Select Discography is informative, albeit rather futile given today’s internet and its search engines and given enterprises such as Amazon.com. The notes on famous Zarzuela singers, however, are a worthwhile addition if one does not know Spanish to access Martín de Sagarmínaga’s Diccionario de cantantes líricos españoles (Madrid, 1997).
Unfortunately there are a considerable number of inaccuracies in Webber’s Zarzuela Companion, perhaps inevitable in a first edition and in a work of so broad a scope. To be more specific in terms of factual inaccuracies:
Title and colloquial idioms present severe obstacles when translating Spanish into English. Unfortunately, Webber does not always avoid the traps, as the following list will show:
Hopefully, the publisher will produce a second and revised edition which will correct these errors. The book is too valuable a resource for Zarzuela enthusiasts not to be available in corrected form.
June 30, 2004
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