When Plácido Domingo was named artistic consultant of Los Angeles Opera in 1984, two years before the company staged its first production, he noted that it might be a good idea to perform zarzuela, Spain's form of operetta, in a town where Spanish is commonly spoken. Named artistic director designate in 1998, the Spanish tenor and son of zarzuela singers said the time was ripe for you know what. With his title upgraded to general director of the company four years ago, Domingo insisted once and for all that he'd bring zarzuela to L.A.
Sunday night he finally did. He starred in and dominated a long overdue but flawless production of Federico Moreno Torroba's "Luisa Fernanda." But even in a community as closely connected to Latin culture as ours, zarzuela requires a bit of selling. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looked decently filled but not packed Sunday.
A word to the wise: Order your tickets now while seats remain. After folks find out just how ingratiating this music is, how visually sophisticated the production and how overpowering Domingo's performance, the pavilion is likely to be mobbed.
Premiered in 1932, "Luisa Fernanda" represents the final days of a 300-year-old tradition. Zarzuela, the Spanish insist, is distinct from other types of operetta. In fact, it is quite close. All forms — be they Parisian, Viennese or what became the Broadway variant — rely on national musical and theatrical sensibilities. All incorporate popular song, dialogue and humor.
Still, there is hardly a second of music in "Luisa Fernanda" not recognizably Spanish. Torroba had a light, lyric touch. The score has its big numbers, which will bring a nostalgic tear of recognition to Spanish opera-goers of a certain generation, but Torroba's greater accomplishment is the graceful flow of continuous, seemingly effortless and limitless melody and his colorful use of the orchestra.
The plot is interesting. A noble farmer, Vidal, and a soldier-adventurer, Javier, vie for Luisa during the political insurgency against Queen Isabel II in 1868. Vidal fights with the rebels because his rival in love is a monarchist. Once a revolutionary himself, Javier supports the queen because of his flirtation with a duchess.
Vidal ultimately wins Luisa but in the end gives her up when he realizes that she loves Javier. Unlike the typical French or Viennese operetta, this zarzuela leaves us with his heavy heart, not the delight of the happy couple.
Emilio Sagi's clean and elegant production — which comes by way of Vienna, Madrid and Washington, D.C. — is stylized in black and white. Geometric shapes of light give it an almost Robert Wilson-lite character. The peasants look particularly good dressed in natural fibers. Pepa Ojanguren's designs for the principals stand out as tasteful updates of traditional Spanish costumes.
Like Domingo's, Sagi's zarzuela credentials are generational. His great uncle sang Vidal in the premiere. Presumably Domingo's grand, nearly melodramatic approach to the role has historical roots. I thought it verged on heavy-handed. But no matter. Domingo sang with maximum passion and acted as if his life depended upon every word, and all of us in the audience simply ate it up.
Certainly no one could possibly have internalized this work more than Domingo, who grew up performing it in his parents' company and has conducted it, sung the tenor role of Javier and included some of the more famous numbers in his recitals throughout his long career. Now assuming the baritone role of Vidal and well into his 60s, he sounded louder Sunday than anyone else onstage as he continued to beat the longevity odds.
The rest of the cast was sure. Yali-Marie Williams — a last-minute replacement for Maria José Montiel, who had contracted stomach flu — was a more feisty than seductive Luisa. Elena de la Merced proved a Duchess Carolina of considerable charm. Antonio Gandía carried off Javier's ardor reasonably well. Suzanna Guzmán, Daniel Montenegro and Federico Gallar were all very good in smaller roles as revolutionaries.
The chorus handled Nuria Catejón's simple choreography with surprising style. Miguel Roa conducted fluidly. Even the amplification for the spoken text was decent, maybe a first for the company.
"Luisa Fernanda," performed in Spanish, follows "The Merry Widow" and "Porgy and Bess" to end the L.A. Opera season with a kind of informal mini-operetta festival. "Porgy" was smart, but the performance was inconsistent. "Merry Widow," translated into English, was long and vulgar and insulted its audience.
Let "Luisa Fernanda" be the model for the company when it wants something light. At slightly more than two hours, it never wears out its welcome. Domingo may care about everything that he puts on the Chandler stage, but this time it really shows.
Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Wednesday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. June 12, 14 and 16
Price: $30 to $220
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com