Theater Reviews

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L.A. Opera Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through June 16


A zarzuela is roughly defined as "a Spanish musical play consisting of spoken passages, operatically trained voices, choruses and dances." (There's also the zarzuela that one eats -- a Spanish version of bouillabaisse, preferably enjoyed with a glass of Rioja on a sunlit balcony in the Sierra Nevada foothills in southern Spain overlooking the Mediterranean, which is a totally different experience.) "Luisa Fernanda," written in 1932 and one of the most famous zarzuelas, is a first for Los Angeles Opera, but it is a family affair for Placido Domingo. His parents sang in composer Federico Moreno Torroba's zarzuela company that was formed to tour Mexico, where the Domingos settled with their 5-year-old son and started their own zarzuela company. In 1946, Domingo Sr. played Vidal Hernando, opposite his wife, Pepita Embil, as Luisa.

The director of L.A. Opera's latest venture is Emilio Sagi, whose great-grandfather played the role of Vidal Hernando, now being filled by Domingo, in the 1932 production. Sagi's production is based on his initial Milan staging in 2003.

That sorts out that family tree ... phew!

While music and glorious voices are at the heart of opera, the story is rarely a point of concentration. The themes are always so similar, often a triangle, with love and lust, longing and leaving and sometimes death and taxes.

"Luisa Fernanda's" theme is similar but with a political edge and at a more populist level. Monarchists and revolutionaries battle it out, but it seems most of them can be seduced into changing sides when the going gets tough or when it's more comfortable. Because this is zarzuela, not opera, the top dog, or dog-ess here, only has her own duchy, which she rules with a flick of her silky tail. A charming Elena de la Merced is Duchess Carolina, complete with superior dulcet soprano tones and very winning ways. The big man on campus is the renowned Domingo, carrying on the family tradition as Hernando, a wealthy landowner with a yen for Luisa, who has been downsized by her cavalier without a conscience, Javier Moreno (Antonio Gandia, a prize-winning zarzuela tenor).

On opening night, Maria Jose Montiel, who was to play Luisa, was indisposed, and the role was taken over by Yali-Marie Williams, a comfortable replacement and a competent match for Domingo, who proves he's still able to pull it out, even though his baritones are several notes lower than his younger tenor but just as strong. Luisa and Vidal make a great pair, but there's always the ghost of her first love haunting a perfect relationship. In battle, when Javier loses his horse and his prestige, it's Luisa who comes to his aid. As much as Vidal would wish it otherwise, he must remain loveless as Luisa can't help herself against the pull of the needy Javier, who has lost his pride along with the battle.

Daniel Montenegro as Anibal, Suzanna Guzman as gossip columnist-in-chief and Camille Zamora as Rosita, a saucy seamstress, are notable in voice and presence, as are all the solid, and not so solid, citizens of this "peaceful corner of Madrid," which is represented by a small model city that sits downstage right, labeled Madrid.

When the action moves to the people-versus-the military skirmishes, a covey of wedding chairs serve as a barricade; the devastation of the battlefield is represented by toppled chairs. The only relief of the mainly white and some black costumes set against what looks like a makeshift canvas cutout screen is the central, beribboned oak tree that represents Extremedura, where Vidal's country house awaits his bride. Whether this is in reaction to the generally lush, color-saturated operas to which we have become accustomed, or whether it is an educational aid in the explanation of zarzuela as the people's opera, is in question.

The music, however, remains glorious, romantically and spiritedly Spanish, a pleasant break in a succession of serious, set-in-stone classical operas. Conductor Miguel Roa, director and designer Emilio Sagi, choreographer Nuria Castejon, costume designer Pepa Ojanguren, Antonio Gandia, Federico Gallar and, of course, Domingo gave their romantic Spanish all for this spirited production.

LUISA FERNANDA
Presented by Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer: Federico Moreno Torroba
Libretto: Federico Moreno & Guillermo Fernandez Shaw
Critical version: Federico Moreno-Torroba Larregla
Conductor: Miguel Roa
Director/set designer: Emilio Sagi
Associate director/choreographer: Nuria Castejon
Co-set designer: Paul Taylor
Costume designer: Pepa Ojanguren
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Los Angeles Opera concertmaster: Stuart Canin
Los Angeles Opera chorus master: William Vendice
Cast:
Luisa Fernanda: Maria Jose Montiel, Yali-Marie Williams (alternate)
Vidal Hernando: Placido Domingo
Javier Moreno: Antonio Gandia
Duchess Carolina: Elena de la Merced
Mariana: Suzanna Guzman
Anibal: Daniel Montenegro
Rosita: Camille Zamora
Don Luis Nogales: Federico Gallar
Bizco Porras: Gregorio Gonzalez
Street Seller: David Robinson
Savoyard: David Lomeli
Don Lucas: Levi Hernandez
Don Florito Fernandez: Valeriano Lanchas
Captain: Daniel Armstrong
Olive harvester: Robert Hovencamp
Coconut seller: Lisa Crave
First guy: Sal Malaki
Second guy: Stephen Arel
Man: Francis Lucaric
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