Let down for ‘Luisa’

After a long absence, zarzuela returned to the Kennedy Center on Saturday, as the Washington National Opera presented a sparkling production of Federico Moreno Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda” in the Opera House.

With Placido Domingo as one of the romantic leads, and talented singers and dancers in abundance, “Luisa’s” opening night proved to be an agreeable, tune-filled evening, that should be warmly welcomed by operagoers. But both a rebellious chorus and the production’s bargain-basement set shaved a few points off the ratings.

Zarzuela is a kind of Spanish popular opera, not unlike the operettas that graced European and American stages in the early 20th century. Occupying the transition zone between classical and popular staged music productions, zarzuela, looks back, as do operettas, to the old German “singspiels” and forward to the Broadway musical.

Having debuted in 1932, “Luisa’s” plot revolves around the anti-royalist turmoil in Spain in the 1860s — a period remarkably similar to what was to unfold in the 1930s. Jilted by her fiance, the swaggering soldier Javier, Luisa falls into the eager arms of gentleman-farmer Vidal Hernando, an older man with more to offer — including monogamy, commitment, and at least a passing interest in the revolution.

As Vidal Hernando, arguably Moreno Torroba’s central character, Placido Domingo is clearly the star of the show, switch-hitting his way into a baritone role once sung by his own father. It’s a charming, nostalgic excursion executed warmly and convincingly by an artist who continues to have no equal among his generation of singers. His ecstatic Act II love song, “Ay! Mi morena, monera clara!” (roughly, “Ah! My raven haired beauty!”), and his broken-hearted final aria were high points of the evening.

Mezzo-soprano Maria Jose Montiel also sparkled as the title character, with a deeply burnished voice that worked well in both solos and in brief ensembles. As the cad Javier, Israel Lozano got impressive mileage from his compact yet gallant tenor instrument, though he could never quite succeed in generating sympathy for his opportunistic character.

“Luisa’s” large supporting cast was polished and professional, with sweet-voiced soprano Elena de la Merced notable in her small but crucial role as the clueless and coquettish Duchess Carolina.

Brickbats, though, for the WNO chorus, and perhaps for conductor Miguel Roa as well. While their Act II habanera and “parasol mazurka” were executed flawlessly, the chorus seemed for much of the night to be in open rebellion against Maestro Roa’s breakneck tempos. This is a sloppiness issue that needs to be resolved — and quickly.

And a hearty thumbs down for the monochrome costuming and sets of Pepa Ojanguren and Paul Taylor. After last week’s dismal “Il Trovatore” sets, one hoped for a bit more color here, but it was not to be. Sliding black and white curtains and scrims, and scattered wooden chairs, probably acquired at Wal-Mart, sufficed as scenery for three acts.

The monotony was only broken by a large tree and some dashes of creative lighting in the finale. Postmodern productions, no doubt, save opera companies a lot of money. But they —like WNO’s accountants — have no heart, no soul, and no place in the festive environs of Spanish light opera.

***

WHO:The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Federico Moreno Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda”

WHEN: Tomorrow, Friday and Nov. 17 and 19 at 7:30 p.m; Saturday and Nov. 15 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

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