Doing the zarzuela

This Thursday, the small Jerusalem-based Aeterna Opera outfit will take on something a little off the beaten operatic track.

La Clementina 311 (photo credit: Gregory Stolrov)
La Clementina 311
(photo credit: Gregory Stolrov)
Italian 18th-century cellist composer Luigi Boccherini produced a sizable catalogue of work during his 62 years on Planet Earth. His 350 compositions include 20 symphonies, 91 string quartets, over 150 quintets, eight cello concertos and 60 trios, not to mentioned religious works. However, when it came to operatic work the sole entry in his CV is La Clementina.
“I don’t know why he only wrote one opera,” muses Aeterna Opera founder-conductor Ilya Plotkin who will wield his baton over seven Aeterna vocalists, a presenter-actor and 10 instrumentalists, including a harpsichordist, at Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel this Thursday at 8 p.m.
“Perhaps no one commissioned more operas from him.”
Boccherini certainly had the requisite breeding. For a start he came from Italy, and from a musical family. His father was a cellist and double bass player.
It was at the age of 18 that Boccherini Jr. made a decisive career move, when he went to Madrid to work for Infante Luis Antonio, the younger brother of Spanish King Charles III. After falling out of favor with his royal employer Boccherini moved into a country residence and wrote some of his best work, unhampered by employer constraints. La Clementina, with a text by Ramon de la Cruz, belongs to the latter category.
La Clementina was written in 1786, as a one-act operetta or, more accurately, a zarzuela – a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre comprising spoken and sung scenes. It is a comedy which relates the story of a wealthy widower by the name of Don Clemente who has two daughters of marriageable age, and of disparate personalities. The zarzuela is liberally laced with complex familial relations, love interest galore and plenty of twists and turns.
“It is a soap opera,” says Plotkin plainly, adding that not only has he not tried to disguise that mass appeal element, he has placed it front and center.
“We have an actor who plays the role of a TV presenter,” continues the conductor.
“You know, like with a soap opera, he’ll tell us what happened in ‘the previous episode,’ and the actors will come on stage and portray that behind him. The presenter will also tell us about what the audience will see and hear. As the text is in 18th-century Spanish, I thought it would be a good idea for the audience to know the storyline well before we start.”
WHILE THE spoken and sung words may not all be entirely intelligible to the average classical music fan, Plotkin says the composer’s intent comes over loud and clear in the music.
“It is like champagne,” says the conductor simply.
“The score is beautiful and bright, and entertaining. The whole of La Clementina is entertaining and very funny. It really is a joy.”
Some of the preparatory stages for the production were not exactly a “joy.”
“I didn’t know the work and I learned about it from one of the musicians in the ensemble,” Plotkin recalls.
“Then I had to get hold of the score, and that wasn’t easy, or cheap. Eventually I found the score in Italy.”
And Plotkin says that life didn’t get much easier once the sheet music was finally ensconced in Jerusalem.
“It is quite a complex score and [director] Masha Nemirovsky put a lot into it.”
La Clementina is also an intriguing due to its binational influences.
“Boccherini lived and worked in Spain most of his life, but he remained an Italian,” observes Plotkin.
“I think that the person who commissioned the work from him was looking for that added Italian element in the music. I think that, if La Clementina had been written by a Spanish composer it would have been much more serious. Boccherini is full of light and air and sunlight, like champagne. It is very Italian.”
Thursday’s concert offers a rare opportunity to catch La Clementina.
“It wasn’t performed much in Boccherini’s lifetime and it doesn’t happen much in contemporary times either,” says Plotkin.
“I am at a loss to understand why. It is such a beautiful work and so much fun. I’m sure the audience will have fun with it.”

La Clementina will be performed at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on Thursday at 8 p.m. For more info and tickets: (02) 620-3463 or