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Domingo and Co. Tame Penella’s Wildcat : Opera review: While technically not opera, in its best moments “El Gato Montes” is good opera; in its worst, still interesting.

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

“El Gato Montes,” a.k.a. “The Wildcat,” isn’t your ordinary everyday garden-variety opera.

Technically, it isn’t an opera at all. Its creators called the splashy opus a zarzuela.

That makes it an intrinsically Spanish, essentially popular entertainment fusing music, drama, folklore and dance.

But if it looks like an opera, sounds like an opera, smells like an opera, stars Placido Domingo, and is presented by the Music Center Opera of Los Angeles at the Orange County Performing Arts Center under the auspices of Opera Pacific, it must be an opera. Right?

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Right.

The question is: Is it a great opera?

Not really.

Does that matter?

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Not really.

In its best moments, “El Gato Montes” is a good opera. And in its worst moments, it still is interesting.

One’s response to Manuel Penella Moreno’s easy, blood-and-gutsy saga of tragic love, lusty lust, misplaced honor, noble revenge and pretty death among the dashing matadors, brooding peasants, romantic outcasts and comic relievers of old Andalusia depends on one’s expectations.

Compared to Puccini--and the comparison is inevitable--Penella would seem to be a very competent imitator. There are worse fates.

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Compared to Andrew Lloyd Webber--and the comparison is painfully pertinent--Penella would seem to be a deathless genius. He doesn’t repeat himself. He doesn’t overwrite. He doesn’t cheat, and he doesn’t ooze slushpump sentiment.

The Music Center Opera, which will follow the gala Orange County tryout with six performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion starting Wednesday, isn’t calling the project an American premiere. Historians tell us that an Anglicized version of “El Gato Montes” played Broadway for 10 weeks in 1921--five years after the first triumphant performance at the Teatro Principal in Valencia.

There can be no question, however, that the current version is far more elaborate, far more serious, and probably more authentic than its distant New York predecessor. This production, after all, comes from the Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid, where it was first seen in 1992. It enlists a stellar cast that understands and savors the idiom. It is staged by Emilio Sagi with equal parts sensitivity and flamboyance, and it uses a new musical text lovingly and lavishly edited by the conductor Miguel Roa.

The capacity audience in Costa Mesa seemed to adore every quiver and every hemidemisemiquaver at the opening on Saturday. The high-tension arias, the fervent duets and the neatly delineated ensembles earned instant ovations. So did Goyo Montero’s gypsy-pipsy dance divertissements. So did Julio Galan’s picturesque sets--three-quarters naturalistic, one-quarter abstract.

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The climactic bullfight, accompanied by Penella’s beloved pasodoble in the pit and embellished with some distressing newsreel footage on the scrim, inspired the wonted awe as well as many an ah. The music was nice--simplistic, perhaps, but always nice--and the stagecraft was terrific.

Penella’s score abounds in folk impulses that add a compelling Spanish accent to the predictable verismo formulas. This is music that wants desperately to please, and cliches pose no obstacle. There is plenty of hummable melody here, much snappy rhythm, a lot of gushing emotion.

The desperate climaxes produce high notes in all the right places, and the orchestra always reinforces the proper response. When the titular heavy makes his entrance, the assembled brass actually blare ominous chords worthy of a misplaced Scarpia.

The biggest problem with “El Gato Montes” involves its structure. Penella uses the first act for careful exposition of character and plot. In the second act he concentrates on the action-climax. Then things tend to fall apart, with too little coming too quickly.

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The tenor-hero has met his cruel fate with hardly an “adios.” The grieving soprano dies her “Leidestod” during an intermission. The baritone-antihero turns into a tragic figure with hardly a pause for demonstrative introspection. Expansion is needed here, but development does not seem to be the composer’s forte.

The performers do their considerable best to accentuate the positive. Domingo, the operative force behind the entire venture, brings Otello power as well as push-button temperament to the dashing agonies, not to mention the diverting ecstasies, of the matador Rafael Ruiz. The ever-forceful Justino Diaz manages to be both sinister and sympathetic as his “wildcat” nemesis, the baritonal-bandit Juanillo.

Veronica Villarroel exerts the perfect aura of wounded ardor as the long-suffering heroine who loves both men--in different ways. Her big, bright, occasionally rough-edged soprano sounds far more vibrant as Solea than it did as Puccini’s Mimi in San Francisco or Verdi’s Violetta in Los Angeles.

The large supporting cast adds appreciative nuances of not-so-local color. Carlos Chausson offers a sweetly befuddled Padre Anton. Suzanna Guzman delivers an apt Carmen audition as “una gitana.” Michael Gallup blusters amiably as the picador Hormigon, a pardonable memory lapse notwithstanding. Mabel Perelstein introduces a classically maternal contralto as Frasquita, and John Atkins is deft as always as the valet Caireles. In the fleeting utterances of the street vendor, Greg Fedderly suggests that his elegant lyric tenor has been misused in crusty comprimario assignments.

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Everyone articulated the Spanish text--and, one assumes, the Andalusian dialect--with apparent ease. The super-titles proved useful in conveying the niceties of an unfamiliar plot, although, once again, they drew attention to the screen atop the proscenium at the expense of the actors on the stage.

Roa conducted with seasoned flair, if without maximum fire. He received staunch support from the so-called Music Center Opera Orchestra, which didn’t sound like the pick-up band it must be.


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