Jupiter y Semele, o, El estrago en la fineza (review)
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The Opera Quarterly 20.2 (2004) 323-325



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Júpiter y Semele, o El estrago en la fineza. Antonio de Literes
Júpiter: Marta Almajano Semele: Virginia Ardid
Cupido: Lola Casariego Al Ayre Español
Juno: Soledad Cardoso Eduardo López Banzo, director
Enarreta: Marina Pardo Harmonia Mundi Iberica hmi 987036.37
Cadmo/Sátiro: Jordi Ricart     (2 CDs)
Ydaspes: Jose Hernández

This romp is a delight from beginning to end. The only serious complaint is that, with a total running time of ninety-nine minutes, the performance is over too soon.

Antonio de Literes (1673-1747), a native of Majorca, was a popular and prolific composer. Júpiter y Semele, first performed in 1718 in Madrid, is a fine example of eighteenth-century zarzuela, more modest in scale than the typical opera of the period and full of theatrical life. It is not the first of Literes's stage works to appear on records: his Los elementos has also been recorded by Eduardo López Banzo and Al Ayre Español (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi B0000665Y). By the time this review appears in print, the same ensemble's recording of Literes's Acis y Galatea will have been released (DHM B000059GER).

Harmonia Mundi provides a handsome and user-friendly package: a sturdy hinged cardboard box, containing the booklet and a separate folder that holds the two CDs in plastic trays. The booklet, although attractive, could be more informative. Rather maddeningly, it contains no information about the performers (with the exception of the ensemble's director, López Banzo)—only a few photos, which are not captioned or otherwise identified.

Nor are we told when or where the recording was made. There is applause at the end of each of the two acts, and most of the spoken dialogue in the performance sounds as though it has been recorded "live" in an open acoustic, with the occasional extraneous noise captured. Most of the musical numbers, however, seem to have been recorded in a closer, drier, and quieter ambience, and sound much more like studio work. Al Ayre Español has performed the work in concert form on tour in several European cities; so what we hear on this recording may indeed be a compilation of live performances, rehearsals, and studio sessions.

The notes, a bit evasive to begin with, have been translated into English by Mark Owen, who sometimes makes the mistake of trying to preserve the word order of the Spanish original. This results in some awkward turns of phrase, such as "which recalls the deception and dream into which it is wanted Semele to be sent" (booklet, p. 23). Owens does a better job of translating the libretto, although he is sabotaged by the seemingly inevitable quota of typos. (Why is the prevailing standard of proofreading so low in the materials that accompany recordings? The kinds of errors one encounters would never be tolerated in books or periodicals.)

The notes imply that there may be some doubt about Literes's authorship and that the work may be a rewrite of an older zarzuela, now lost. The notes [End Page 323] also reveal that, for this recording, the spoken dialogue has been abridged. (Why not print it in full in the booklet?) A sinfonia by Domenico Scarlatti has been pressed into service as an overture, and two other brief instrumental pieces have been inserted elsewhere. If any other reconstructive work had to be done on the score, we are not told about it. Is the instrumentation heard on this recording authentic, or is it a "realization"? (Some explosive percussion entries in the opening scene evoke Carl Orff rather than the Baroque.) Thirteen players perform, with some doubling and indeed tripling, on a total of eighteen instruments: oboe, recorders, strings (including viola da gamba, archlute, Baroque guitar, and theorbo), harpsichord, and percussion. The effect is lively and colorful, but one wonders whether the instrumental ensemble for the first performances was even smaller.

The zarzuela's subtitle, El estrago en la fineza, is difficult to...