Despite its indisputable artistic interest and fascinating four-century history as a dramatic genre, zarzuela is still seldom performed outside of Spain and Latin America. Many would argue that the language barrier and the localism of certain plots act as deterrents to a broader reception, but a more plausible cause could be the general lack of ambition of most zarzuela productions, usually contented with satisfying a loyal but demographically declining local audience.

Since his arrival to Teatro de la Zarzuela two years ago, Italian manager Paolo Pinamonti seemed determined to reverse this situation and has made commendable efforts to increase the international impact of their productions. This was the case of last season's revival of José de Nebra's Baroque masterpiece Viento es la dicha de amor, conducted by Alan Curtis, or, more recently, the tremendous success of Ruperto Chapí's Curro Vargas, directed by Graham Vick. Thanks to this bold change of course, the Teatro de la Zarzuela might be on its way to become a promising Opéra-Comique-like alternative to Teatro Real in Madrid. In this context, last Friday brought together Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Pablo Sorozábal's rare zarzuela Black el Payaso, an attractive double bill which, despite some bright points, failed to convincingly link opera and zarzuela.

Black el Payaso premièred in Barcelona in 1942 and is considered one of the last Spanish operettas ever composed. The post-war gloom penetrates an original libretto that combines dark nihilism with desperate evasion: in an acrobatic stunt, Black and White, two clowns toiling in Paris, end up being king and prime minister of the imaginary country of Orsonia. Pablo Sorozábal, author of some of the best zarzuelas composed in the 20th century, such as Adiós a la Bohemia (1933) and La Tabernera del Puerto (1936), illustrated this colourful story with a witty score that stays away from musical folklore and skillfully echoes cabaret and jazz. Although Sorozábal's explosive inspiration is not distributed evenly across the score and, if not performed with the right tone, the plot might seem incoherent and foolish, it is a work worth exploring as it bizarrely conveys the lost mood of a darker age.

Apart from a few literal connections, Black el Payaso and I Pagliacci have little in common. But the contrast between nostalgic satire and full-blooded verismo could have been a fruitful source of inspiration. However, stage director Ignacio García proved uninterested in the link between the two works and, despite a couple of anecdotal references, frustrated any possibility of dialogue. This said, the effective direction showed talent and skill and the good control of dramatic rhythms ensured a smooth and entertaining show. Visually, the artistic team failed to exploit the potentially corrosive language of circus and clowns, and contented themselves with the most basic clichés.

Italian conductor Donato Renzetti visibly felt much more at ease in Leoncavallo's dark and stark score than in the extreme diversity of Sorozabal's work. Although he failed to deliver the cynical colour of some of its parts and was unable to adapt the language and the volume of the orchestra to the satirical lightness that pervades the work, he lived up to the challenge of reviving a rare and complex score with very few references at hand.

The cast included some of the most acclaimed Spanish singers of their generation, which offered a panoramic view of the current state of lyric singing in Spain. Baritone Juan Jesús Rodríguez convincingly played the leading role in Black el Payaso but he was far from his best vocally. The colour of his voice, undeniably his main asset, is extremely seductive and virile, which always gives an earthly touch of honesty to his roles. However, the voice sounded strained and heavy during the whole performance and the high notes easily lost the brightness of his centre. On the other hand, bass Rubén Amoretti was an extraordinary White, with the clearest diction in the show. María José Moreno was able to rise from a disappointing Sofia – maybe too dramatic a role for her light-lyric voice – to a tremendous Nedda. Dreamy and innocent in “Qual fiamma avea...”, showing a precise control of her instrument, she fully revealed the heroic nature of Nedda in a vibrant last scene. Her counterpart as Canio was young tenor Jorge de León, who has built a meteoric career in the last couple of years. He has a powerful lyric voice with tons of squillo in the centre (and sometimes in the high notes), which has led him to take increasingly dramatic roles. His superficial approach to artistic interpretation may seem adequate for Canio but, despite some truly electric moments, his careless phrasing and his ineffective use of accents prevents him from becoming the spinto tenor he yearns to be. Fabián Veloz (Tonio), Javier Galán (Dupont) and Miguel Borrallo (Beppe) completed an overall strong cast.

The show proved that it is possible to establish fruitful and successful (if we are to judge from the reaction of an enthusiastic audience) dialogue between opera and zarzuela. Although the results of this attempt could have been better accomplished, Teatro de la Zarzuela is setting new standards in the performance of this captivating genre. The best is yet to come.