Miami Lyric Opera to present Arrieta’s rarely heard “Marina”

By David Fleshler

Imagine that Frederick Loewe, aspiring to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, removed all the dialogue from My Fair Lady and reworked the musical into a grand opera.

That, in essence, is what happened with Marina, a rarely heard Spanish opera that will be performed July 30 and Aug. 1 by the Miami Lyric Opera, a young company that compensates for low-budget sets with excellent singing.

 Marina, a story of love and misunderstanding in a Mediterranean fishing village, began life as a zarzuela, a form of operetta that was wildly popular in 19th century Spain. But the composer, Emilio Arrieta, had studied at the Milan Conservatory, where he became intoxicated with the bel canto works of composers such as Bellini and Donizetti.

 Like Arthur Sullivan, who was convinced he was made for grander things than light entertainments in collaboration with W. S. Gilbert, Arrieta aspired to what he considered to be the artistic big leagues, and at the suggestion of a well-known tenor, he reworked the two-act zarzuela into a three-act opera. Not surprisingly, when asked about Marina, zarzuela enthusiasts remember the snub.

 “I feel it is hopelessly old-fashioned, musically lacking in interest and clumsily patched together into its through-written form,” said Christopher Webber, author of The Zarzuela Companion, who added that he respected Arrieta’s later zarzuela work. “Why is it still trotted out? Well, Marina owes some of its continued popularity to the fact that General Franco’s wife loved it and pushed to have it performed constantly in Spain.”

 To the members of the Miami Lyric, however, Marina has much more going for it than the endorsement of the late Spanish dictator’s wife. They see it not as an inflated zarzuela but as a fine example of bel canto composition, sung in Spanish but infused with the spirit of the great 19th century Italian operatic composers.

“It’s superbly written for the voice,” said Beverly Coulter, a soprano who will sing the title role in the first-cast performance. “It’s very expressive, and it’s technically demanding.”

 The soprano role has a high tessitura – the range in which most of the notes fall – making it difficult to sing, like the great bel canto roles of Lucia and Norma. Unlike those roles, Coulter said, Marina hasn’t been performed and recorded by generations of sopranos, allowing her to arrive at her own conception of the part.

 “I prefer that,” she said. “You can choose your own way, and you’re not modeling yourself on another singer. You can make it your own. I find that process much more creative because you haven’t heard every other soprano in the world sing it.”

Arrieta was born in 1821 in Puente la Reina, Navarra, according to Webber’s web page While studying in Milan, he became friends with Amilcare Ponchielli, composer of La Gioconda. Upon Arrieta’s return to Spain, Queen Isabel II appointed him to various musical positions in Madrid, and he became a conservative opponent of the nationalistic composers attempting to found a Spanish school of composition.


 The opera, which was revised into its current form in 1871, tells the story of the orphan girl Marina who is secretly in love with the ship captain who serves as her guardian. He loves her too, but neither knows the other’s feelings. Meanwhile, Pascual, a jealous baritone, courts Marina and appears on the verge of wedding her. After many misunderstandings, several arias, choruses and a drinking song, things end happily.

 Although rarely performed in the United States, Marina never faded from the repertoire in Spanish-speaking countries. Placido Domingo, whose parents were zarzuela performers, performed the role of Pascual in 1959 in Guadalajara. And Raffaele Cardone, the retired tenor from Bari, Italy, who founded the Miami Lyric and serves as its artistic director, sang in Marina years ago in Mexico.

  “It’s beautiful music,” Cardone said. “Lots of high notes. The role of the tenor, the role of the singers is at the same level as Puritani. Here we are in a large Spanish-speaking community, why not bring something that’s different?”

 In his newsletter, Cardone said he has carefully selected singers capable of performing in a true Italianate style, and judging from the company’s past performances, the singing is likely to be on a high level.

 “There are things that might be attractive to a hard-core opera crowd — the vocal writing is typically bel canto, very florid bel canto with a lot of coloratura, a lot of high notes,” said Pablo Zinger, a well-known New York conductor and writer on zarzuela. “If people are expecting Spanish-sounding music, they aren’t going to get it. However, if they want a Spanish opera that sounds like Bellini and Rossini, that’s Marina.”

 Still, Marina retains traces of zarzuela. It’s sung in Spanish, a language rarely heard on the opera stage. It contains a couple of Spanish musical numbers, a seguidilla and a tango. And following a rigid zarzuela rule, it has a happy ending.

 “In zarzuela nobody substantial dies,” Zinger said. “As opposed to opera, where the rule of thumb is you must kill the soprano or the mezzo.”

 The Miami Lyric Opera performs Marina July 30 and Aug. 1 at 8 p.m. at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach. For tickets call 305-674-1040 or go to

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Wed Jul 22, 2009
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