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Black, el payaso

by on 5 August 2022

Send In the Clowns

Black, el payaso

byPablo Sorozábal, libretto by Francisco Serrano Anguita

Cervantes Theatre Co at the Arcola Theatre until 6th August, then at the Cervantes Theatre, Southwark until 24th September

Review by Patrick Shorrock

On paper, Black, el payaso(Black, the Clown) did not have a lot going for it: a composer Pablo Sorozábal (1897-1988) barely heard of over here writing in a distinctively Spanish genre that is likely to seem both obscure and defunct to UK audiences.  This is its UK premiere. (There must be a reason why no-one seems ever to have tried to do a zarzuela in the UK before?).  However, Grimeborn very definitely knew what they were doing.  Blessedly free of the usual operetta clichés, the piece takes to the stage like a duck to water, and is pure delight.  On this evidence, there is a lot more to zarzuela than operetta with castanets.

Sorozábal should take a lot of the credit, helped by an interesting plot and libretto, fine performances, and an effective production.  Even in a reduction for piano and violin, his quirky score is extremely attractive.  The violin in particular gets opportunities to sound romantic in a Brahmsian Hungarian Gipsy mode, as is appropriate for its central European setting (the kingdom of Orsonia).   Ricardo Gosalbo (piano) and Elena Jáuregui (violin) made an excellent case for it, and never let the pace flag, and the audience interrupts regularly with delighted applause.

This is music is designed to please an audience in a refreshingly sugar-free kind of way: peppery olive oil rather than Viennese whipped cream, but still very tasty.  That said, there is an underlying seriousness to it that conveys the feelings of the characters with conviction without ever losing its lightness of touch.

Two clowns – called Black and White – are performing in a Parisian theatre.  Black plays a song on his violin that causes an exiled Princess in the audience to faint, as it reminds her of a tune that her dead fiancé, Prince Daniel, had played for her, although they never actually met.  The song has distinct affinities (in a good way) with Marietta’s lied in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and later returns as a duet for Black and Princess Sofia.  She refuses to believe that Black is not Prince Daniel.  By Act 2 they have returned to Orsonia, where White has become First Minister and Black is about to take the throne and marry Sofia.  Black is then confronted by the real Prince Daniel, who tells him that he has no desire to resume the throne and is happy for Black to continue in his role.  Prince Daniel’s aria celebrating the joys of ordinary bourgeois family life as a concert pianist – gloriously sung by talented tenor David Powton (who also takes the role of journalist Marat) –  is unexpectedly moving and one of the highlights of the score.  This all probably felt a lot more subversive at the 1942 premiere at the end of the Spanish Civil War and the start of the Franco dictatorship.

The score is challenging to sing but provides plenty of vocal opportunities which the cast took full advantage of.  Michael Lafferty-Smith is an attractively light-voiced Black (which seems to refer to his costume rather than his skin colour) who vividly expresses his discomfort with his royal role, and Guiseppe Pellingra has bags of personality and a fine voice as White.  Raphaela Papadakis is a gorgeous Princess and Juliet Wallace an appealing soubrette as her sister Catalina.

Director Paula Paz keeps things on the move in a way that maximises the dramatic impact.  I’m not sure why she had a child narrating the action while playing with a toy theatre, but it didn’t get in the way.  Caitlin Abbott’s designs seem more lavish than they actually were.  The work is performed in Spanish with surtitles, but sensibly the cast speak the dialogue in English.

Black El Payaso is an interesting unusual piece able to provide delightful entertainment and intertextuality at the same time, with a song as a major plot point and a direct quote about melancholy clowns from Pagliacci.  The references to audiences barely able to afford ticket prices in the clowns’ warm-up introduction seemed particularly topical on a day that the Bank of England raised interest rates.  Perhaps this can be the first of more zarzuelas.

Patrick Shorrock, August 2022

Photography by Elena Molina

From → Arcola Theatre, Opera

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