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• 125 • 6 Zarzuela and the Operatic Tradition When the influenza pandemic of 1918 reached Spain in the autumn of that year, the hit zarzuela playing in Madrid was La canción del olvido (The Song of Oblivion), which featured a number that had already become popular outside the show: the song “Soldado de Nápoles” (The Soldier from Naples), which rapidly became the Spanish nickname for the so-called Spanish Flu. The libretto by Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernández-Shaw manages to infuse freshness into a stock situation—the rake who is redeemed through the love of a good woman, and their sure sense of stagecraft contributed to the success of La canción. But in all musical theater pieces, it is the music that is responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the work, and the score to La canción would be the finest ever written by José Serrano. (Fernández-Shaw would later compliment the score by joking that the reason the influenza became known as the “Soldado de Nápoles” stemmed from the fact that both were equally contagious.)1 Serrano’s score is notable not only for its rapturous melodies and keen theatrical sense, but also for the way it manages to sum up the zarzuela music of the previous decade. It incorporates the sound of European operetta that composers had begun to cultivate during the 1910s, and it incorporates musical tropes from yet another genre that Spanish composers had been using during that decade—opera. The operetta element to La canción del olvido is the most obvious facet of the score. Many of the numbers, notably the title song (No. 2 in the vocal score), require trained voices and are orchestrated heavily for strings and harp. Although some critics have found these numbers (especially those of leading lady Rosina, of which “La canción del olvido” is one) to be more operatic than operetta-derived, the vocal lines are more restricted in tessitura than one would expect to find in Italian opera.2 The specifically Spanish and zarzuela-driven elements can be found in the choral numbers, which follow Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain, 1880–1930 • 126 • the zarzuela tradition of having the chorus represent a segment of the population (albeit here of Naples rather than of Spain). This is made clear by the fact that the chorus is always accompanied by a group of street musicians known as the rondalla, rather than by the orchestra. The guitar and lute accompaniment of the rondalla were clearly meant to evoke the street musicians who had helped to popularize zarzuela music in Spain, without necessarily losing the Neapolitan atmosphere that Serrano, Romero, and Fernández-Shaw were attempting to re-create. (The use of the rondalla is no doubt meant to recall the use of street musicians in the scores to works like Pan y toros, El barberillo de Lavapiés, and La verbena de la paloma. It also foreshadows similar treatments in Doña Francisquita, La Calesera, and La parranda.) In addition, the choral numbers tend to comment on the action, especially the central choral number and the most famous piece of music from the zarzuela, the “Soldado de Nápoles.” The choral interjections serve as a mildly ironic commentary on Leonello’s attempted seduction of Rosina—an irony that is doubled because Leonello has hired these serenaders to assist him. The operatic overtones of La canción appear in the third scene of the work, which is the main love duet between Leonello and Rosina (No. 6 in the vocal score). The scene is a twenty-minute love duet whose scope—in terms of zarzuela music, at any rate—almost begs comparisons with the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is not simply the length of the number that evokes the shadow of Wagner: much of Serrano’s orchestral underpinning uses the other numbers in the score, especially Rosina’s “Canción del olvido” and Leonello’s “Mujer, primorosa clavellina” (Woman, the Exquisite Carnation ), as leitmotifs to reflect the emotions onstage. This love duet also manages to work in the rondalla by making the first theme of the duet a reprise of “Hermosa napolitana” (Beautiful Neapolitan Girl), which they had previously performed. In this epic love duet, Serrano managed to do something that had eluded Spanish composers for decades. He composed zarzuela music with true operatic scope. The critics noticed what Serrano had accomplished. ABC claimed...


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