Plácido Domingo added role No. 151 to his legacy Saturday night. Was this celebrated tenor-baritone-conductor-impresario and all-around operaholic counting all 65 years he has been on the stage, beginning with the children’s parts he sang in his parents’ zarzuela company in Mexico City? Does he get kickbacks from Guinness World Records?
All kidding aside, Domingo assuming the title role in Manuel Penella’s zarzuela “El Gato Montés” meant something. It obviously meant a lot to him on a personal level far beyond the satisfaction for a 78-year-old opera singer to be credible onstage as some wild cat, the gato montés.
One of Domingo’s admirable lifelong ambitions has been to help keep zarzuela on life support. Although this form of Spanish lyric theater goes back to the Baroque era, we mostly associate it with the works from the late 19th and early 20th century that mixed influences of Italian verismo opera and Viennese operetta with recognizable Spanish musical idioms.
Despite a dose of political relevance, zarzuela lost its vitality at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and by 1950, the genre had become a historical pursuit, if one retaining a fond and dutiful following in Spain and Latin America. Even so, I’ve also met Latina grandmothers who look aghast at the mention of zarzuela, remembering being dragged to shows as children by their grandmothers.
From a modern perspective, though, zarzuela can offer relevance. Musically “El Gato Montés,” which was written in 1916, is a striking, successful cultural hybrid, foretelling the kinds of things, with, say, East and West, that Chinese composer Tan Dun or the Silkroad Ensemble or director Peter Sellars thrive on a century later. Just don’t go looking for Puccini or Lehár, or “El Gato Montés” will sound like warmed-over “La Bohème” or “The Merry Widow.”
How to make zarzuela as contemporary theater is something L.A. Opera does not fully accomplish in a production it imported from Madrid. Essentially traditional with a few modern touches, it disappointingly favors juxtaposition over hybridization.
But it is possible to get past that, because Domingo brings his own powerful meaning to “Gato Montés.” At 17 in Mexico City, he sang the romantic tenor lead, Rafael, a young bullfighter (which he repeated in a 1994 L.A Opera production that was recorded). After his first triumph in the ring, Rafael, who came up from nothing, is poised to marry the beautiful Soleá. She has a past he doesn’t know about.
She had once been in love with, and was still in love with, Juanillo. Having been involved in a murder, Juanillo necessarily abandons Soleá and becomes a fugitive bandit, known as el gato montés. Tired of his loveless life, he returns to reclaim Soleá. Challenged by Juanillo to fight six bulls in a row, Rafael is fatally gored, and Soleá returns to the mature Juanillo, whose passion has a depth far beyond the boyish Rafael.
But Soleá and Juanillo are as doomed as Desdemona and Othello. They’re hunted by a posse. Soleá steps in front of a bullet meant for Juanillo, and they both die. Spoiler warnings? Absolutely not. In opera, and zarzuela counts, it’s not what happens that matters, it’s why.
Yes, Othello! If one role, out of the 150, defines Domingo it is Otello in Verdi’s opera. What the now baritone demands for 151 is a Lear. Unfortunately, Verdi never wrote one, and there isn’t an important “King Lear” opera suitable for Domingo. He could try to talk Philip Glass into turning his incidental music for the new Broadway production of Shakespeare’s play starring Glenda Jackson into a full-fledged opera (something not out of the question).
In the meantime, here he is, gato montés as a latter-day Spanish Otello. He’s the old man of substance and power. He has a consuming passion that makes him great and at the same time destroys him. Not only does Domingo portray him as a classic tragic figure, an old lion with no more time left, driven by a love he can’t contain or control; but also Domingo goes so far as to change the ending so that he stabs himself just like Otello.
What Domingo does control, of course, is the musical proceedings. As you would expect, the cast is well represented by singers discovered in Domingo’s international Operalia vocal competition.
Ana María Martínez’s Soleá provides the necessary worldliness to Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s guileless Rafael. If Rafael’s cheeky priest, Padre Antón (Rubén Amoretti), worrisome mother Frasquita (Sharmay Musacchio), pal Hormigón (Juan Carlos Heredia) or the fortuneteller (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) are never allowed to rise above being stock characters, they are allowed to rise as superior singers. It also helps that conductor Jordi Bernácer keeps the heat on.
A bare stage with stone steps is dolled up with various props and the occasional garish projection, the lighting often kept dark (all credited to Francisco Leal). Choreography by Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega attempts to mildly update flamenco and fails to create much dazzle with a dancing toreador’s cape illuminated on the dark stage. Jorge Torres appears an unobtrusive director, neither here nor there, not yet ready to think of this “Wild Cat” ready for the age of Pitbull.
But the age of Domingo, for now, is enough.
L.A. Opera’s ‘El Gato Montés’
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and May 16; 2 p.m. May 19
Information: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes