Operatic city? More than 270 operas are set in or mention this magical Andalusian jewel. Wandering through the picturesque labyrinth of the Barrio de Santa Cruz district of Seville it’s not long before you come across the monument to one of the city’s most celebrated/excoriated former residents. (The Spanish are justifiably proud of their great historical figures whether they existed or not: la Mancha is full of statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). This particular Spanish Legend (again, the word ‘leyenda’ is happily applied to all celebrated women and men, whether legendary – that is the stuff of legend – or not) is Don Juan Tenorio, the Dom Juan of Moliere, the Don Juan of Byron, Don Giovanni …. Not originally, of course, an operatic figure at all but the protagonist of a gripping moralistic drama by a Mercedarian Friar which, through French and Italian versions, became the protagonist of the first truly universal Seville-based opera.
When I arrive in Seville with a group of moderately cultivated friends I always like to tell them that over 270 operas are set in or mention Seville and then ask them to name the five great works set in Seville. The object of this ‘Face the Music’ moment is to show off. They never get the fifth. ‘Barber of Seville’, by extension, ‘Figaro’, then ‘Carmen’ come fairly quickly followed eventually by ‘Don Giovanni’ but my contestants need a fair amount of prompting before they get ‘Fidelio’.
Not that Beethoven had ever been to Seville. In fact there is nothing remotely Spanish about Fidelio. Seville is 1825 was a remote little-visited city associated with the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition and repression, an ideal location for Beethoven’s masterpiece. Bizet, Rossini and Mozart had never been to Seville either. But by the end of the 19th century Seville is the city of light, passion, love and romance, the Spain of the caricature tourist brochure of the 1950’s and 60’s, gypsies and bullfighters around every corner.
Operatic city and Sevilla’s Anno Mirabilis
In 1992 (Sevilla’s Anno Mirabilis) the city was presented with a new Opera House. Appropriately, it shares with the bullring a riverside location, a name (La Maestranza) and an amphitheatrical shape. It opened its doors with a concert featuring the great names of Spanish Opera, a veritable roll-call of world-class singers: Domingo, Carreras, De Los Angeles, Lorengar, Caballé, Pons, the irreplaceable Alfredo Kraus… It was a suitable tribute to Seville, a great operatic city.