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Zarzuela, also called sarswela in the Philippines, is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating dances. It is believed that the name derives from a hunting lodge, the Palacio de la Zarzuela, near Madrid where, in the 17th century, this type of performance first occurred before the Spanish royal court.

There are two main forms of zarzuela: Baroque zarzuela (c.1630–1750), the earliest style, and Romantic zarzuela (c.1850–1950), which can be further divided into the two subgenres of género grande and género chico.

The zarzuela (also known as zarzuelta) is also a genre and integral part of Filipino music. It was brought during the period of Spanish colonization by the settlers and friars, and quickly spread to the natives, who adapted it to their tastes.

Musical theatre had already existed in Spain since the time of Juan del Encina. This new genre named zarzuela was innovative in giving a dramatic function to the musical numbers; that is to say, they were integrated into the argument of the work. Other characteristics were the presence of a large orchestra and the incorporation of choruses, songs, and dances.


Baroque zarzuela

In 1658 at the Royal Palace of El Prado, King Philip IV of Spain, Queen Mariana and their court attended the first performance of a new comedy by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with music by Juan de Hidalgo. El Laurel de Apolo traditionally symbolises the birth of a new musical genre which had become known as La Zarzuela. The genre was named after the Palacio de la Zarzuela, one of the King's hunting lodges, situated in a remote countryside thick with zarzas or brambles, in what is now El Pardo.

Like Calderón de la Barca's earlier El golfo de las sirenas (The Sirens' Gulf, 1657), El Laurel de Apolo mixed mythological verse drama with operatic solos, popular songs and dances. The characters in these early, baroque zarzuelas were a mixture of gods, mythological creatures and rustic or pastoral comedy characters; Antonio de Literes's popular Acis y Galatea (1708) is yet another example. Unlike some other operatic forms, there were spoken interludes, often in verse.

Italian influence

In 18th-century Bourbon Spain, 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; these were echoed in theatrical presentations. The older style zarzuela fell out of fashion, but popular Spanish tradition continued to manifest itself in shorter works, such as the single-scene tonadilla (or intermezzo) of which the finest literary exponent was Ramón de la Cruz. Musicians such as Rodríguez de Hita were proficient in the shorter style of works, though he also wrote a full-scale zarzuela with de la Cruz entitled Las segadoras de Vallecas (The Reapers of Vallecas, 1768).

The 19th century

In the 1850s and 1860s century a group of patriotic writers and composers led by Francisco Barbieri and Joaquín Gaztambide revived the zarzuela form, seeing in it a possible release from French and Italian cultural hegemony. The elements of the work continue to be the same: sung solos and choruses, spiced with spoken scenes, and comedic songs, ensembles and dances. Costume dramas and regional variations abound, and the librettos (though often based on French originals) are rich in Spanish idioms and popular jargon.

The zarzuelas of the day included in their librettos various regionalisms and popular slang, such as that of Madrid castizos. Often, the success of a work was down to one or more songs that the public came to know and love. Despite some modifications the basic structure of the zarzuela remained the same: dialogue scenes, songs, choruses, and comic scenes generally performed by two actor-singers. The culminating masterpieces from this period were Barbieri's Pan y toros and Gaztambide's El juramento. Another notable composer from this period was Emilio Arrieta.

Romantic zarzuela

After the Glorious Revolution of 1868, the country entered a deep crisis (especially economically), which was reflected in theatre. The public could not afford high-priced theatre tickets for grandiose productions, which led to the rise of the Teatros Variedades ("variety theatres") in Madrid, with cheap tickets for one-act plays (sainetes). This "theatre of an hour" had great success and zarzuela composers took to the new formula with alacrity. Single-act zarzuelas were classified as género chico ("little genre") whilst the longer zarzuelas of three acts, lasting up to four hours, were called género grande ("grand genre"). Zarzuela grande battled on at the Teatro de la Zarzuela de Madrid, founded by Barbieri and his friends in the 1850s. A newer theatre, the Apolo, opened in 1873. At first it attempted to present the género grande, but it soon yielded to the taste and economics of the time, and became the "temple" of the more populist género chico in the late 1870s.

Musical content from this era ranges from full-scale operatic arias (romanzas) through to popular songs, and dialogue from high poetic drama to lowlife comedy characters. There are also many types of zarzuela in between the two named genres, with a variety of musical and dramatic flavours.

Many of the greatest zarzuelas were written in the 1880s and 1890s, but the form continued to adapt to new theatrical stimuli until well into the 20th century. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War, the form rapidly declined, and the last romantic zarzuelas to hold the stage were written in the 1950s.

Whilst Barbieri produced the greatest zarzuela grande in El barberillo de Lavapiés, the classic exponent of the género chico was his pupil Federico Chueca, whose La gran vía (produced with Joaquín Valverde) was a cult success both in Spain and throughout Europe.

The musical heir of Chueca was José Serrano, whose short, one act género chico zarzuelas - notably La canción del olvido, Alma de dios and the much later Los claveles and La dolorosa - form a stylistic bridge to the more musically sophisticated zarzuelas of the 20th Century.

The zarzuela in Catalonia

While the zarzuela tradition flourished in Madrid and other Spanish cities, Catalonia developed its own zarzuela, with librettos in Catalan. The atmosphere, the plots, and the music were quite different from the model that triumphed in Madrid; the Catalan zarzuela was looking to attract a different public, the bourgeois classes. Catalan zarzuela was turned little by little into what is called, in Catalan, teatre líric català ("Catalan lyric theater"), with a personality of its own, and with modernista lyricists and composers.

In the final years of the 19th century, as modernisme emerged, one of the notable modernistas, and one of Pedrell's pupils, Amadeo Vives came onto the Barcelona scene. He contributed to the creation of the Orfeó Català in 1891, along with Lluís Millet. In spite of a success sustained over many years, his musical ambition took him to Madrid, where zarzuela had a higher profile. Vives became one of the most important zarzuela composers, with such masterpieces as Doňa Francisquita, La villana (both based on plays by Lope de Vega) and the through-written opera in zarzuela style Maruxa.

The twentieth century

In the first years of the 20th century greater quality pieces are composed (such as Doña Francisquita by Amadeo Vives). Zarzuela was supported with these works that, sometimes, were adapted to the Italian opera musical structure, thanks to the works of Pablo Sorozábal, Federico Moreno Torroba and Jacinto Guerrero. The zarzuela style continued to flourish, thanks to composers of the stature of Pablo Sorozábal - who reinvigorated it as a vehicle for socio-political comment - Federico Moreno Torroba, and Francisco Alonso.

However, the Spanish Civil War brought a decline of the genre, and after the war, its extinction was almost total. There were no new authors in the genre and the compositions are not renovated. There have been no significant new works created since the 1950s; the existing zarzuela repertoire is costly to produce, and many classics have been performed only sporadically in recent years, at least professionally. Furthermore, existing zarzuela is difficult and expensive to play, and is only seen sporadically, by seasons, during a few days.

The name of género ínfimo was given to the emerging form of entertainment known as revistas, a genre rising from the ashes of zarzuela: musical works similar to the zarzuela but lighter and bolder, with many scenes that were described at the time as verdes—"green"—containing sexual themes and racy double entendres. One masterpiece of the género ínfimo ("minimal" or "extremely low genre") is La corte de Faraón, by Vicente Lleó (based on the French operetta Madame Putiphar.) These revistas caught on with the public and the songs are still a part of popular culture.

From 1950, zarzuela was revivified thanks to the LP recording. A series was released by the Alhambra Company to great success, many directed by the Spanish conductor Ataulfo Argenta. The best voices of the day, world-renowned opera singers such as Teresa Berganza, Manel Ausensi, and Pilar Lorengar, performed the leads, and choirs such as the Orfeón Donostiarra and Coro de Cantores de Madrid provided the chorus. After Argenta's death others such as Indalecio Cisneros and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos continued in his footsteps. There were also recordings made conducted by the composers themselves, such as Pablo Sorozábal and Federico Moreno Torroba, using such great singers as Alfredo Kraus and Plácido Domingo. (Domingo's parents were themselves zarzuela singers, and he grew up working in their touring company in Mexico; zarzuela inspired him to pursue a singing career.)

In Cuba the afrocubanismo zarzuelas of Ernesto Lecuona such as María la O and El cafetal and Gonzalo Roig (Cecilia Valdés, based on Cirilo Villaverde's classic novel) enjoyed a brief golden age of political and cultural fame, highlighting the plight of the mulata woman and other, mainly black underclasses in Cuban society. Mexico and the Philippines likewise had their own, politically conscious, zarzuela traditions.

Interest has been further renewed since the late 1970s as zarzuela again found favour in Spain, primarily with young people, who enjoyed the lyrical music and the theatrical spectacle. Since the death of Francisco Franco, zarzuela has started to become known and loved by many people outside the Hispanic world.

Discography of zarzuela

From 1950 onwards, zarzuela was able to survive thanks to album recordings, an area which has only grown in subsequent years. The first series met with great success, and the majority of these earliest productions were directed by the Spaniard Ataulfo Argenta. Some of the most popular voices of the time appeared on these discs, world-recognized singers who were professional devotees of opera and recitals. Teresa Berganza, Ana María Iriarte, Carlos Munguía, and others lent their voices to the recordings. The choirs of Orfeón Donostiarra and Singers' Choir of Madrid also contributed, rounding out the overall quality of the works.

After the death of Ataulfo Argenta, directors like Indalecio Cisneros, García Asensio, and others picked up the cause. There were even recordings which were directed by the works' original composers, as was the case with Pablo Sorozábal and Federico Moreno Torroba. In this phase, acclaimed voices participated in the newer, bigger recordings: Montserrat Caballé, Alfredo Kraus, Plácido Domingo, and many more. In 2007, tenor Rolando Villazón released 'Gitano', a recording of zarzuela arias, accompanied by the Orquesta De La Comunidad De Madrid, with Plácido Domingo conducting.

Renewed interest in the genre

The latter 1970s witnessed a revived interest in zarzuela, especially its music. All of Europe was experiencing an increasing interest in lyrical opera, especially among younger viewers, and Spanish reverberations of this sentiment produced a renewed interest in zarzuela. Music stores began offering albums whose discs were accompanied by a small pamphlet containing the synopsis of the work and information about the author. Radio and television dedicated program slots to zarzuela, including a popular series of programs offered by TVE entitled Antología de la zarzuela ("Zarzuela Anthology").

Zarzuela composers

Partial list of Zarzuelas

Other uses

Zarzuela is also the name of a Spanish dish made of diverse sorts of seafood and fish, named after the opera genre, due to the mixture of characters.


Cincotta, Vincent J. Zarzuela - The Spanish Lyric Theatre: A Complete Reference. University of Wollongong Press, Wollongong, Australia, 3rd ed. 2005, pp. 766. ISBN 0-864187-00-9

External links

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