Amadeo Vives - La Generala

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday May 29 2008

Conductor: José Fabra. Production: Emilio Sagi. Sets: Daniel Bianco. Costumes: Jesús Ruiz. Choreography: Nuria Castejón. La Generala: Carmen Gonzalez. Principe Pio: Enrique Ferrer. Princess Olga: Beatriz Diaz. Reina Eva: Itxaro Menxaka. Cirilo II: Enrique Baquerizo. Clodomiro V: Miguel Lopez Galindo. Duque de Sisa: José Luis Gago. General Tocateca: David Rubiera. Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid. Chorus of the Châtelet. Production from the Teatro de la Zarzuela - Madrid.

If it was the Châtelet management's intention to introduce zarzuela to Parisians, La Generala (even in a production from the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid) was an odd choice. It is set in England, not Spain (albeit a fantasy sort of England where Oxford is a stone's throw from Cambridge and hosts a Scottish regiment). Instead of popular Spanish characters it features exiled royalty from fictional kingdoms. And there is little specific "local colour" in the waltzy score, which often recalls (and is no worse than) Lehar. In other words, it's more a Spanish take on Viennese operetta than zarzuela as such.

This highly professional show had a great deal going for it. Act 1 was set in an all-white, neo-Georgian parlour with tea-tables, chairs, prim maids and cheeky page-boys. Act 2 opened with guests scuttling, under umbrellas, for shelter from the storm behind a leafy gauze which rose, after the prelude, to reveal a complete, working, Belle Epoque carrousel taking up most of the stage. For all we could tell this may have been the genuine article, set up during the 30-minute interval. The 20s costumes were beautifully detailed, whether the maids', the royals' or the chorus girls'. The corny dance routines were fun. The cast, by now not just well-rehearsed but fully run-in from the Madrid performances, worked hard at the comedy. And the show ended in a shower of golden confetti.

But the plot of La Generala is painfully thin and fails to convince us that its heroine is really an exceptional character along the lines of Hannah Glawari or Dolly (not that I ever found either of them especially convincing either). The comedy remained largely unfunny. The Madrid orchestra played without a spark of conviction. Despite the singers' admirable stagecraft, their voices were, on the whole, either inaudible or forced (I started to feel, during the evening, I'd been too hard on the cast of Carmen in Sydney). With Minkowski in the pit, I thought, and Dessay and her ilk on stage in the same production, it might be made to work, but here, I'm afraid, it didn't.

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