Jaime Aragall’s Forgotten “Marina”

Marina LP cover

ARRIETA: Marina / Victoria Canalé, sop (Marina); Jaime Aragall, ten (Jorge); Antonio Blancas, bar (Roque); Victor de Narké, bs (Pasquale); Coro de Camera del Orfeon Donostiarra; Philharmonic Orch. of Spain; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, cond / available at House of Opera as CD or available for free streaming on YouTube

Pascual Juan Emilio Arrieta Corera, now often known simply as Emilio Arrieta y Corena, was born Navarre in 1823, but somehow he acquired Italian musical training. Queen Isabel II took a shine to him and allowed him to concentrate on writing operas, hoping that one of them might click as big as Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia or Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and make both Arrieta and Spain famous.

After only three operas, however, none of which became popular, Arrieta was sidetracked into writing zarzuelas but was never really fond of them or committed to the form, since the majority of them were very simple structures, almost high-grade pop tunes strung together and interrupted by spoken dialogue à la the French opéra-comique style. Marina, in fact, was one of three such works he penned in 1855, and although it became the most popular of the three it only had a local following within Spain.

That is, until the great Italian tenor Enrico Tamberlick discovered it. He was immediately attracted to its catchy tunes and saw possibilities in it for him to shine, but in order to bring it to Italy it had to be a fully-flashed-out opera complete with sung recitatives. Tamberlick contacted Arrieta and asked him if he would be amenable to doing this; the composer eagerly agreed and, in addition to writing sung recits, he expanded the work from two acts to three. Few of the tenor’s high notes are written in the score for the character of Jorge, but of course this was the era of “tack ‘em on if you’ve got ‘em,” and since Tamberlick was famous for his high Bs and Cs he did so.

The premiere of the operatic version of Marina took place in 1871 and, if possible, it was even more successful than the premiere of the zarzuela version. Tamberlick rode Marina to glory, making Arrieta’s name famous throughout Italy, but sad to say there was no sequel. Marina remained his one bit “hit” outside of Spain.

But one opera as popular as this one was enough for him. He was happy, Tamberlick was happy, and audiences left the theater humming and whistling the tunes from Marina. No matter that the music was entertaining and not much more than that; no matter, too, that Marina’s last aria was obviously cribbed from the mad scene  of Lucia di Lammermoor. In its own way, in its own time, Marina was as popular as Flotow’s Martha and Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau.

But strictly entertaining and dramatically shallow works like Marina were never meant to stay popular forever, thus by the early 20th century Italy was through with it. Interestingly, however, the operatic version traveled back to Spain and became quite popular in that country again—now in its operatic garb, but still sometimes, and erroneously, referred to as a zarzuela. It became a vehicle for the great Spanish baritone Emilio Sagi-Barba and the tenor Miguel Fleta, who created the role of Calaf in the world premiere of Puccini’s Turandot. On February 17-18, 1928, Spanish HMV gathered these two singers and soprano Matilde Revenga in the studio to record an album of highlights from the opera, which began selling very well.

And there the matter may have ended but for the fiery, almost obsessive rivalry between Fleta and another Spanish tenor, Hipolito Lazaro. Lazaro envied Fleta for having created the role of Calaf because his voice was only half the size of Lazaro’s, and seeing this album on the market selling fairly well in Spain almost drove him crazy. “I can sing better than that old uncle!” was Lazaro’s cry. (Apparently, in Spanish culture of the time, to sing like or be an “old uncle” was the ultimate insult to a man’s virility.) So the next year, 1929, either Lazaro or someone at the offices of Spanish Columbia decided to record not just highlights but three-quarters of the complete opera with what was then an all-star cast: Lazaro, soprano Mercedes Capsir, baritone Marcos Redondo and the fabulous basso José Mardones. From the time that the Lazaro Marina came out, the album has been considered a collector’s item. It has been in and out of print on LP and CD for generations and is still considered to be the gold standard for that work.

Interestingly, stage performances of Marina had rather dwindled, even in Spain, by the time these recordings came out. In the 1950s, two recordings were made in mono, one of highlights on the Montilla label with soprano Maria Caballer, tenor Fernando Baño Ferrando and baritone Luis Sagi Vela, and a complete performance on the Carillon label with soprano Pilarín Álvarez, a young Alfredo Kraus and baritone Francisco Kraus, the tenor’s older brother. Both had modest sales, mostly within Spain, and sunk without a trace. In 1962 Catalan tenor Bernabe Marti, who married soprano Montserrat Caballé two years later, recorded his own version of the opera, but he had such an ugly voice that the album had only modest sales. In 1987, then aged 60 and a world-famous tenor, Alfredo Kraus reprised the role of Jorge in live performances and made a new recording in digital stereo with soprano Maria Bayo and baritone Juan Pons. That version sold fairly well due to Kraus’ high reputation as an artistic tenor.

But…

Maria Bayo had a fluttery wobble in her voice and Juan Pons had a somewhat strained-sounding baritone, on top of which, for all his fine artistry, Alfredo Kraus was really too old by that point to sing the difficult music of the dashing young sailor who wins Marina’s heart. So I just kept on looking for another recording, and then came across this one on YouTube.

It’s superb.

At first I thought it was recorded in the 1980s because all of the copyright dates I kept finding for it were dated 1987 (including on the House of Opera website), but eventually I discovered that it came out 20 years earlier, in 1967. In fact, the label of the original Spanish Columbia LP clearly dates it as 1967.

LP labelThe star of this show is Jaime (Giacomo) Aragall (b. 1939), the gifted Spanish tenor who fought debilitating performances nerves for 15 years and, as a result, had a tendency to sing flat at times, yet many people forgave him because he had such a beautiful and superbly-placed voice. I first heard him around 1969 on the old Lorin Maazel recording of La Traviata, a performance ruined for me by the fluttery singing of soprano Pilar Lorengar…yet I never forgot the impression that Aragall’s voice made on me. He’s in top form here, tossing out his high notes with impunity, including high Cs which, of course, is one note that his more famous rival Placido Domingo never had.

But who are the other singers? They were something of a mystery to me, thus I relied on my old friend Joe Pearce, president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society, for information. Soprano Victoria Canalé is the biggest mystery singer. All that Pearce and I could find on her was that she performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Chile in 1962, conducted by Georg Jochum, the younger brother of Eugen Jochum, and that she performed in a 1976 concert with the New York Philharmonic under then-music director Pierre Boulez. There were other singers on the program with her, and the repertoire included de Falla’s El Amor Brujo (normally sung by a mezzo or contralto) plus songs of Leonard Bernstein. Otherwise, she has no internet presence.

Baritone Antonio Blancas was born the same year as Aragall (1939) but for some reason grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he made his debut in 1961 (again, the same year as Aragall’s debut). He then went to Europe a few years later but, oddly, sang mostly in German opera houses and occasionally at the Paris Opera. He made a few zarzuela recordings and also married soprano Angeles Gullin; both of them appeared in the opera written for Placido Domingo, “El Poeta.” To the best of my knowledge, he is still with us.

The bass, Victor de Narké, was the oldest singer in this performance, having been born in 1930. He studied voice with Robert Kinsky and Editha Fleischer, the latter being, according to my late friend Dr. Louis Leslie, one of the finest sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1930s but one who never made any recordings. After making his debut at the Teatro Colon in Argentina in the mid-1950s, he stayed there until his death, singing a large number of leading roles including both Verdi and Wagner. This surprised me because his voice really doesn’t sound all that imposing or great on this recording, but the interesting thing is that he died in 1986, the year before this Marina was supposedly recorded.

I won’t pretend that de Narké is in the same league with Mardones, but he gets by in what is, after all, pretty much a character part (he’s Marina’s unwanted suitor, a rough pipe fitter who keeps bringing her flowers and candy). Blancas, however, is nearly as good as Marcos Redondo, and soprano Canalé had a beautiful voice, pure and full. Plus, she had a pretty good trill, which is something that Capsir never possessed, and shows it off to good advantage in her music.

And here are two interesting facts regarding performance practice that I found worth noting. First, probably less consequential but still odd, is that all recordings of Marina use the full operatic version yet list it on the album covers as a “zarzuela”—which, in this version, it clearly is not. Secondly, and this will undoubtedly interest and rile up the historically-informed-performance crowd, in all recordings of the opera up through 1962 the chorus sounds like a group of drunken amateurs. This, I was told, is and has been Spanish performance practice since Arrieta was writing his zarzuelas in the 1840s and ‘50s, but on both the present recording and Alfredo Kraus’ 1987 remake, the chorus sounds lush, full and thoroughly professional. So, just like the use of heavy portamento in string playing, this is yet another aspect of real historic practice that has been rejected in our present day because it simply doesn’t fit our expectations.

Now, of course, all you can really get out of Marina is some top-notch entertainment wrapped in a well-written score with plenty of tunes that people can hum. Had it been a comedy with some interesting plot twists like Martha or L’Elisir d’Amore, it would probably be much more popular, but it’s hard to get excited over an opera whose plot simply revolves for 110 minutes around a young woman who wants to marry the handsome, hunky sailor Jorge, who raised her when she was orphaned, instead of her dumpy ship’s fitter boyfriend Pasqual. There’s very little dramatic conflict in the libretto other than a letter written by Marina, the intent of which is misconstrued by Jorge. It’s just a matter of Jorge not knowing for some time that Marina has the hots for him, and once he finds out of course he’s her man. The End. But as Ayn Rand once pointed out, no matter how intellectual your pursuits are, even in music, everyone loves what she referred to as “tiddlywink music,” and Marina certainly fills the bill. Arrieta was a good enough composer that what he wrote is by no means uninteresting although it is pretty much formula Italian opera music with one or two authentic Spanish tunes thrown in for color. By and large, you’ll enjoy Marina if your sights aren’t set too high, the same way you can occasionally enjoy Donizetti’s Fille du Regiment for the same reason. It’s a pick-me-up for tired business people or, in this day and age, Covid-19-weary travelers.

Thus I recommend it for what it is and make no pretensions that it’s better than that. And this is clearly a first-class performance of it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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