Mariola Cantarero (Zulema), Mariá José Suárez (Almeraya), Ana Ibarra (Isabel), José Bros (Gonzalo), David Rubiera (Boabdil), Ángel Ódena (Lara), Alastair Miles (Muley-Hassem), David Menéndez (Alamar) - r. live July 2006 Teatro Real, Madrid, Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid c. Jesús López Cobos

Dynamic CDS 618/1-2 (2 discs 133 minutes)


It is always instructive to find a work that lies at a tangent to a central tradition, as it invariably shows familiar works in a different context. Emilio Arrieta (1821-94) is a composer associated with Zarzuela; his Marina remains a central pillar of that repertoire, he collaborated with Antonio García Gutiérrez, who is known to Verdi scholars as the playwright of El trovador (Il trovatore) and Simon Boccanegra, and his pupils included Chapí and Bretón. But, before this Arrieta studied at the Milan Conservatoire and completed two Italian operas of which La conquista di Granata (1850) is the second. It boasts a libretto by Temistocle Solera, who wrote five libretti for Verdi, notably his first opera Oberto, and his early successes Nabucco and I Lombardi. Returning to Spain, Arrieta became a favourite of Queen Isabel II, who made him Composer-Director of the Teatro Real, Madrid, where La conquista was successfully premiered. It achieved a second run five years later, and was then buried, until two concert performances in 2006, again at the Teatro Real; the basis of this recording, which coincides with the publication of a critical edition of the score.


The plot concerns the Catholic monarch’s siege of the Alhambra, the last Muslim stronghold and conflicts and relationships within and without. We hear a young composer steeped in the idioms of early Verdi, and while there is much stock material lacking the master’s propulsive energy, melodic genius and instinct for streamlined construction, there is also a quirky individuality at work. Attention is held by an intermittent melodic lopsidedness, as if Berlioz were trying to write within the foursquare constraints of the lingua franca of 1840’s Italian opera, some refined orchestration and harmonic and musicianly qualities that are more reminiscent of Mercadante. There are occasional (not enough) Moorish inflections that surprise within their context, and are very attractive and catchy. Much of the first act is routine, culminating in a father-daughter duet that cannot compare to Verdi’s many essays in this vein. But before, there is an offstage soprano aria Molle zeffiro del cielo, sung by the half-Moorish girl Zulema that has a delicious oriental tint and striking orchestration of tremolo strings, harp and a curious double bass pizzicato riff that almost hints at a tango. Interestingly, this scoring reappears several times in Zulema’s later music – almost a leit-texture. Both performance and music liven up considerably in the later acts: the mezzo Queen Isabella has a lovely visionary aria about Columbus Sola, io sola, with a virtuoso flute obbligato, and a rousing duet Prendi, la lama, and there is a prison scene in the last act which contains two heavenly visions and a prayer:  music of real inspiration. Structurally, the piece lives moment by moment. There is a very catchy concertato in Act Two, but it sounds incomplete and it, in fact finishes the act without a stretto, and the final scene of religious conversion is both musically and dramatically perfunctory. 


The Madrid forces under Jesús López Cobos give a highly sprung rhythmic performance, with much attractive solo playing – the flute has a very busy night, featuring in many arias and in an almost Bizet-style intermezzo. The chorus is bright, forwardly placed and well blended. As Zulema, Mariola Cantarero has a slightly backward placed soprano which despite an attractive timbre can sound strained – she is capable of very musical phrasing that does full justice to her many showpieces, yet her tone can splinter under pressure. José Bros, as Gonzalo, her Christian lover, displays a focused tenor sound, that is slightly pinched in the upper register – both tend to lurch ill-advisedly to extreme, presumably interpolated, high notes. Ana Ibarra is Queen Isabel, a part for a Donizetti rather than a Verdi mezzo. She has an attractive timbre, but sounds tremulous in her demanding opening aria. She comes into her own in her last act scena. Alastair Miles similarly takes a while to warm up, but rises to the Prison scene with great warmth of tone. The supporting cast is strong. Recording quality is spacious, but some tutti passages sound constricted and occasionally murky. I’m not sure the opera would bear repeated listening, but as a footnote in the history of Italian – or Spanish – opera, there is much to enjoy. Excellent notes and booklet.  


© Julian Grant 2009