The following correspondence has been received from Tom, our principal guest reviewer, on the latest offering of the Los Angeles Opera:
Placido Domingo – opera superstar tenor and now impresario – has long wanted to introduce Los Angeles opera audiences to the delights of Spanish zarzuela – the uniquely Spanish light opera very much in the tradition of France’s Jacques Offenbach as well as the United Kingdom’s Gilbert and Sullivan.
And how appropriate! Versions of zarzuela were being performed just blocks from L. A.’s Music Center more than a century earlier in the neighborhoods surrounding L. A.’s historic and colorful Olvera Street in such venues as stages in and near the venerably antique Pico House Hotel (1869), including the adjacent Merced Theater (L. A.’s first stage suitable for musicals, vaudeville or theatre). California’s last Mexican governor, the Honorable Pio Pico (whose large villa along the San Gabriel River is now restored) is said to have loved the zarzuela.
Zarzuelas were performed as well in some of the very grand Spanish and Mexican-era rancheros in the Los Angeles basin, which became towns and then cities. The Spanish heritage of the Los Angeles region is heard in these former Ranchero names – San Fernando, San Gabriel, Santa Ana, San Dimas, Santa Monica, San Pedro, Cerritos, Hermosa, Redondo, Santa Clarita, Santa Anita – all backed up against the Sierra Madre (Mother Sierra) mountain range. The region encompassed two great missions – San Gabriel  and San Fernando Rey de Espana (St Ferdinand King of Spain)  – which flew the flag of Imperial Spain, where the zarzuela genre originated. That genre includes this 1930s-era operetta by Spanish composer Federico Moreno Torroba.
[Below left: Placido Domingo as Vidal Hernando; edited image, based on a photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
General Director of both the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera in D. C., Mr Domingo can make projects such as this happen and did! These two opera companies joined Madrid’s renowned Teatro Real in a joint production of Luisa Fernanda.
Mr Domingo sang the lead role of Vidal Hernando – an elderly, kind, rich landowner who does not get the girl (Luisa Fernanda). The story-line is complicated – understanding which makes such regular fare as Mozart’s glorious “Cosi Fan Tutte” seem tame.
This is how the LA Opera summarizes the piece: “For the love of a woman anything in the world is possible sings Vidal Hernando, played by Placido Domingo. To win the love of the beautiful young Luisa Fernanda, he would do anything – even fight to the death if necessary.
His rival, the dashing Colonel Javier has a different idea – to flirt and fight simply for the glory of conquest. Passion, politics, and epic emotions intertwine with personal lives against the spectacle of 1860s revolutionary Spain. ‘Love’, as Luisa sings ‘is a strange potion – the more cruel, the sweeter the taste’ and clearly, this tangled love triangle is intoxicated.'”
Audience members from L. A.’s large Spanish speaking community were ecstatic about Luisa Fernanda, and Mr Domingo brought down the house at the final curtain in a role that he obviously relished – a role his father had sung! Indeed, Mr Domingo had conducted Luisa Fernanda for his parent’s zarzuela company. You begin to see why he was anxious to share this heritage with a Los Angeles audience – and why L. A. loved him for it! In his own words, he notes: “For me, zarzuela represents something very special. My parents were both great singers of zarzuelas – this very traditional and very beloved operetta-like music of Spain.”
The music is rich in melody – very much in the tradition of Puccini – fast moving, full of wonderful crowd scenes such as Maypole dance sequences, contrasted with very emotional solo and duet numbers redolent with deep emotion, but in no way suggestive of other early 20th Century music such as Stravinsky’s or Kurt Weill’s (whose Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was just heard in L. A.)
The piece is very much in the tradition of Puccini’s luscious “La Rondine”, which is in San Francisco’s Fall, 2007 repertory (with Angela Gheorghiu and Misha Didyk) and L. A. Opera’s Spring 2008 repertory (with Patricia Racette and Marcus Haddock). The sets and costumes complemented the music well, nearly all in beige-toned pastels and very generic, providing a happy, most pleasant ambience.
Altogether, with its parallels to the lighter works of Offenbach, Gilbert and Sullivan and Puccini, it is a light, frothy, agreeable, easy-to-digest music which should be welcome in any great opera company’s repertoire. The cast was superb, as might have been expected in an Emilio Sagi production presented by L. A. Opera’s General Manager Domingo.
It included many outstanding singers new to L. A. audiences including Maria Jose’ Montiel in the title role from Madrid, Antonio Gandia as Javier Moreno (he gets the girl!), also from Madrid. The cast also included local artist Suzanna Guzman as Mariana in her 33rd L. A. Opera production. Los Angeles is enriched to have received a production for which the principals gave their all in a genre they so obviously enjoyed! Let’s see some more!
For William’s reviews of recent performances at Los Angeles Opera, in which Placido Domingo either sang or conducted, see: