By Harriet Howard Heithaus of the Naples Daily News
When the United States fell into a recession in 2008, residents economized, dropping their cable TV subscriptions.
When 19th-century Spain dropped into an economic abyss, however, composers economized, writing shorter entertainment that the public could afford at lower ticket prices.
That germinated what’s known as the género chico, the “little genre” of zarzuelas, a Spanish art form of romantic music wrapped around a fast-paced, one-act story. The multi-act género grande that developed later allies itself to opera, with some spoken script that has led musicologists to term it “Spanish operetta.”
No matter what they call it, Ramón Tebar, music director for Opera Naples, loves it. He has made it his mission to bring it to Florida, at least for music lovers to try, in productions such as Opera Naples’ “An Evening in the Palacio de Zarzuelas” on Monday. Songs, or romanzas, from both small and grand zarzuelas are on the program, with dances woven in from Clarita Filgueira’s Flamenco Puro.
“The dance just adds kind of a flair to the evening,” Tebar said.
The title comes from a centuries-old tradition in Spain, begun when the royal family retreated to a hunting lodge nicknamed for the brambles (“zarzas” in Spanish) around it. Evenings were filled with entertainment — a blend of dance, comedy and the musical plays that eventually were referred to by the palace title. Concerts blended entertainment forms then, Tebar said.
“This was the tradition in other countries, too,” he said. “From Beethoven’s time, what was in a concert was much more varied. There might be an orchestral work, then a quartet, then a vocal and then more music.”
Tebar conceded the first challenge is getting area audiences familiar with the music. Most of us have heard zarzuela romanzas at one time or another. Plácido Domingo always adds one to his concerts, as have tenors José Carreras and Alfredo Kraus and soprano Montserrat Caballé.
Still, it’s late getting a foothold in the U.S. Even Florida Grand Opera and its predecessors in Miami, which has a large Cuban population, never had performed a zarzuela before Tebar arrived from Spain.
“In 70 years, they had not done one zarzuela,” he marveled.
“I think that comes from the Spanish character itself,” he said. “It deserves a better knowledge among music lovers, but we have never defended our culture very well.”
“The good zarzuelas, I personally think, are at the same level as that of most major operas,” Tebar said. “The style of singing is the same as opera.”
He is planning to give the audience what he called the “zarzuela greatest hits,” works such “Amor Vida de la Vida,” by Frederico Moreno Torroba and “No puede ser,” by Pablo Sorozabal. Count on some tangos and some music that shows off the instrumentation.
For this performance, meant to be intimate, orchestration includes guitarists and Tebar himself, an pianist accomplished enough to have worked with Caballe on her European tour.
Marinel Cruz, the soprano who sang the role of Micaela in Opera Naples’ “La Tragedie de Carmen” last season, returns. She is joined by tenor Martin Nusspaumer, a veteran of four Florida regional operas.