by C. I. Roman. 0 Comments

With the economic troubles that Spain is now experiencing I thought that I would reflect on some of the cultural wealth that it has imparted to the world with its music.

The zarzuela is specifically a Spanish form of musical theater reserved for a privileged few in areas of large Latin and Hispanic population. It is a Lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance, frequently using rhythms and traditions of Spains rich musical heritage, with plots that often feature popular comic types you might have met in the Madrid of yesteryear.

The zarzuela as genre was innovative because it gave a dramatic function to the musical numbers, which was integrated into the theme of the work. Dances and choruses were incorporated as well as solo and ensemble numbers, all with orchestral accompaniments.

Zarzuela went through various transformations over succeeding decades, taking on attributes of other European music-theatre forms: Italian grand and comic opera, French opera-comique, and operetta.

In 18th-century Spain of the Bourbon, Italian artistic style dominated in the arts, including Italian opera. Zarzuela, though still written to Spanish texts, changed to accommodate the Italian vogue. During the reign of King Charles III, political problems provoked a series of revolts against his Italian ministers which were echoed in theatrical presentations of the zarzuela.

In the 1850s and 1860s a group of patriotic writers and composers led by Francisco Barbieri and Joaqun Gaztambide revived the zarzuela form by incorporating Spanish dance and folk rhythms into a formula that had proved successful for French composers like Offenback and Lecocq. The elements of the work continued to be the same: sung solos and choruses, spiced with spoken scenes, and comedic songs, ensembles and dances. Costume dramas and regional variations abounded, and the librettos were rich in Spanish idioms and popular jargon. The zarzuela of the day included various regionalisms and popular slang of the Madrid castizo.

La Verbena de la Paloma premiered in 1894. A verbena is a street fair (much like St. Anthonys Street Fair in New York Citys Little Italy), usually held in a working class Madrid neighborhood to honor a certain saint. In this case, the honoree is La Virgen de la Paloma or Our Lady of the Dove. The Verbena de la Paloma is widely regarded as perhaps the most perfect of all short zarzuelas.

I would like to explain the importance of the Mantn de la China which is so central to the story of La Verbena. Silk shawls with fringes, made in China were available by the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ones with embroidery and fringes were available in Europe and the Americas by 1820. These were called China shawls and in Spain mantones de Manila because they were shipped to Spain from China via the port of Manila. The importance of these shawls in fashionable womens wardrobes declined between 1865 and 1870. However, they became part of folk dress in a number of places and in Spain they became a part of the gypsy dress in Andalusia. Their use as part of the costume of the lead in Bizets opera Carmen contributed to the association of the shawls with Spain.

The following clips let you savor some of the glorious music of the Verbena de la Paloma with Carlos Marin of Il Divo fame.

Carmen Ileana Roman writes a regular column for

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