Zarzuela is the Spanish equivalent of operetta; although on the surface it sounds operatic, it may contain spoken dialogue inserts as well. The six-disc set Zarzuelas on Naïve consists of four complete zarzuelas issued on the Astrée Auvidis label in the 1990s, all four acknowledged as classics of the genre: Emilio Arrieta's Marina, Tomás Bretón's La verbena de la Paloma, and two works by Amadeo Vives, Bohemios and Doña Francisquita. The zarzuela emerged in Spain in the mid-seventeenth century and flourished for a time, only to get clobbered by the popularity of similar Italian works in the last third of the eighteenth century. After a long eclipse, Spanish zarzuela made a comeback in the mid-nineteenth century and managed to hang on until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War more or less completely wiped it out. The historical range of these works runs from 1871 to 1923, which falls into a period many enthusiasts describe as the "golden age of zarzuela." Although music from this era of zarzuela draws to some extent from the style of French, Italian, and Viennese light, lyric stage works, a more direct equivalent to zarzuela would be the works of Gilbert & Sullivan; it is distinctly local in flavor, thematic concepts, and in the way the accents of Spanish as a spoken language hold forth in song.
The golden age of zarzuela may have been in the period 1870-1930, but the golden age of zarzuela recording was in the 1950s, when the new LP format made the zarzuela practical for distribution on records, and hundreds among thousands in the repertoire of zarzuelas were recorded. After another decline in the fortunes of zarzuela, organizations such as the Caja Foundation of Madrid were formed to keep the zarzuela alive. In the 1990s, the Caja Foundation sponsored the recording of these four works, and several others, in productions featuring Maria Bayo, the superb Spanish lyric soprano who specializes in zarzuela roles. In La verbena de la Paloma she is joined by none other than tenor Plácido Domingo, who is a major booster of zarzuela and worked behind the scenes to mount a series of zarzuela recorded with Deutsche Grammophon that, unfortunately, didn't get much farther than his recording of Manuel Penella's El gato montes. He acquits himself well in La verbena de la Paloma, as does tenor Alfredo Kraus, who was a veteran -- and a major contributor to -- the golden age of zarzuela recording in the 1950s. However, Kraus' advanced age and failing abilities are all too apparent in the recording of Arrieta's Marina, which is easily the weakest of the four; both La verbena and the Doña Francisquita heard here are among the very finest recordings made of these works from any time. The recording of Bohemios is acceptable and not much more than that, but it certainly is not the misfire that Marina is. Incidentally, Marina is heard here in its three act "opera Española" version rather than the earlier two-act zarzuela that Arrieta crafted, so not only is it full of padding, it is the one thing here that really isn't a zarzuela.
The prospect of purchasing the original single-disc versions on Auvidis of all four of these works, back in the 1990s, might have meant taking out a second mortgage on one's home, whereas this budget box set roughly costs the equivalent of a 2008 tank of gas; not a bad price for six discs. However, beware of the hefty, 200-page booklet enclosed; the English-language translations of the libretti are not particularly good and, in some cases, are even misleading; stick with the summaries. Also, one might note inconsistencies between singers as shown in the track listings versus those actually participating in a scene, and the lack of track listings in the libretto itself, which is a real disadvantage should one happen to get lost.