The sound is sort of a cross between classic Italian opera arias and the movie musicals of a bygone era. (Think Mario Lanza.)
It's zarzuela, a truly Spanish idiom. It's Spanish music theatre: a hybrid of opera and popular music, with spoken dialogue and a little dancing thrown in for good measure.
Zarzuela originated in the 1600s and had its heyday in the mid-19th century when a group of Spanish writers and composers came to the conclusion that the flavor of Spanish music had become altogether too Italian. So, they began a tremendously successful revival of the zarzuela, which resulted in the creation of over 10,000 new works by the middle of the 20th century. Not bad for 100 years' work.
After dominating Spain for all that time, the craze abruptly disappeared. Perhaps you could blame the popularity of radio--and the new kid on the entertainment block, television. Spain, like every other country, was tasting everything the world had to offer: rekindling a romance with Italian opera, swooning to French cabaret, stomping to American big bands and everything else the airwaves carried. And for some reason at that time, the musical door didn't swing both ways. The zarzuela just did not seem to translate in other cultures, other languages. And so, the craze died out.
Over the last decade or so, Hispanic singers have been rediscovering the charm of the zarzuela and introducing it to a new and appreciative audience.
There's a lot to appreciate in tenor Rolando Villazon's new release, "Gitano." It's a collection of romanzas, the arias of zarzuela. And music writer Christopher Webber's liner notes are a delight, offering a concise history of the zarzuela and a series of synopses that set the stage for each romanza.
In one story, "Dona Francisquita" by Amadeu Vives, Fernando has been mooning over the beautiful Aurora, who laughs in his face. Suddenly he realizes there's something about Francisquita, who is witty and sweet. Aurora sees which way the wind is blowing and the claws come out. In the aria "Por el humo se sabe donde esta el fuego" ("By smoke, we know where there is fire"), Fernando says he can see a fatal love through one door but through another, an image that could cure his spirit.
It's not just romance that inspires our hero. One romanza is a song of joy at returning to a beloved village after a long absence. Another paints a picture of the Holy Mother, her body shaking with grief and her heart pierced with sorrow.
Ultimately, though, in zarzuela and opera alike, love reigns supreme. Your love loves someone else. Your love thinks you love someone else. Your love is far away. Your love is dead. Lots of hair-pulling and anguish over red lips and dark eyes.
In the world of Italian opera, the tenor is often the hero while the baritone gets to play the villain. In zarzuela, however, it's the deeper-voiced fella who gets the girl and saves the day. For that reason, many of these romanzas have been rewritten to sit more naturally in Villazon's higher range. He also sings a song or two actually written for the tenor in the story, often a comical sidekick. In one example, he is the penniless friend who is glad to leave the glory and riches to his baritone companero, while he basks in the riches of true love with his beautiful girl.
Tenors have a reputation for bluster and bravado. A man has to swagger when he becomes some of these characters! But in his dedication, Rolando Villazon humbly pays tribute to the man he says tamed his wild horse of a voice: Placido Domingo, who conducts the Madrid Community Orchestra on the CD. Villazon says it was the magnitude of Domingo's successes that inspired him to pursue his own musical dream with such intensity and he says this CD, "Gitano," honors his mentor and the music that inspired them both.