at Madrid's
Teatro Real

(18 July 2006)


Luisa Fernanda (photograph from La Scala production c. Andrea Tamoni
Domingo (Vidal) and Montiel (Luisa)– the final moment

Following its American productions and triumph at La Scala Milan, this famous Luisa has in a sense come home. “In a sense”, because she has re-surfaced not at her natural home La Zarzuela, but down the road at La Opera. Romero and Shaw’s original has been tailored to suit: Carlos Carbonell in his review of the 2004 Washington production describes the cutting process, which results in near-elimination of the dialogue’s comedic and political content. The use of Torroba’s 1950’s musical revisions – most drastically his gilding of the Mazurca de las sombrillas, with its swooning harp and saccharine string twiddlings more Gigi than Zarzuela Grande – further highlights the move away from zarzuela towards opera, or at least operetta. Yet it remains a moving experience, not least because Emilio Sagi’s black-and-white staging, relieved by the single green tree and golden light of the Estremadura act, is so true to Torroba’s castizo ideal. I’ve rarely seen such a simply beautiful setting in a large theatre. It serves to focus interest where it needs to be, on the four major characters; and the stellar talents invested there make for an evening as unforgettable as any I’ve experienced in the theatre.

It’s not mere sentiment which makes me say that Plácido Domingo’s Vidal has settled into one of his most heart-warming achievements. For a voice late in its Indian summer, the baritonal reaches remain amazingly firm and vibrant. Vidal’s high tessitura suits a tenorial baritone well, as Luis Sagi-Vela showed many years ago; but what marks this out as a great interpretation is Domingo’s ability to illuminate Romero and Shaw’s text as brightly as he sings Torroba’s music. “Luche la fe por el triunfo” may not be the most individual baritone romanza in the repertoire, but the singer makes each phrase more urgent, heartfelt and dramatically necessary than the last, to overwhelming effect. We feel as if we are watching a man in the act of convincing himself that the woman he loves really is worth all this trouble. In Los variadores he has a way of giving precise and varied rhythmic life to each succeeding “Ay mi moreno”, making for a deliciously playful effect which even Marcos Redondo (in his recordings) does not surpass.

Like his older colleague José Bros has the confidence possessed only by the greatest stage performers, in that he is never afraid to peg back the dynamics, communicating quietly and beautifully, drawing an audience in to what he is doing rather than pushing everything out at them. His “De este apacible rincón de Madrid” was worth the price of admission on its own, the dúo with Elena de la Merced’s pristine (if not strongly characterful) Carolina if possible even more of an exhibition round. Wonderful singing! The last act dúo with the heroine herself was something else again, its melancholic, deeply introspective sexual tension powerfully conveyed by Bros and María José Montiel. Her credibly teenaged Luisa shows off her histrionic power as surely as it does that familiarly rich, even, velvet mezzo-soprano. The impulsive, confiding touchy-feely ease of her relationship with Domingo’s Vidal made Sagi’s ambiguous final stage picture all the more of a question. Half-returning to him, has she grown up sufficiently to realise that in the warm light of day, friendship will prove a better basis for marriage than romantic passion?

Nobody else gets much of a look in, though David Rubiera’s Bizco Porras deserves an honourable mention for unflinching “active listening” throughout Domingo’s romanza; and Javier Ferrer’s Aníbal does enough to suggest what he might have done given a fair run at the comic business. You might have thought it would be difficult to top all this, but you’d be wrong. Domingo and company’s balcony appearance above the Plaza de Oriente during the interval of the delayed big-screen relay was if anything even more stirring, as he enthusiastically led an audience of upwards of 5,000 in a Luisa Fernanda singalong. He is clearly not alone in having the work close to his heart. Opera, operetta or zarzuela? When it comes this good, such petty distinctions simply cease to exist.

© Christopher Webber 2006

Luisa Fernanda: Music: Federico Moreno Torroba; Text: Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernández Shaw. Cast: – María José Montiel; Duchess Carolina – Elena de la Merced; Javier Moreno – José Bros; Vidal Hernando – Plácido Domingo; Mariana – Raquel Pierotti; Aníbql – Javier Ferrer; Rosita – Sabina Puértolas; Don Florina Fernández – José Antonio Ferrer; Don Luis Nogales – Federico Gallar; Bizco Porras – David Rubiera; El Saboyano – Ángel Rodriguez
Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid; Emilio Sagi (director/designer); Nuria Castejón (choreography); Pepa Ojanguren (costumes); Eduardo Bravo (lighting); Jesús López Cobos (conductor)
Co-production Teatro Real, Washington Opera, Los Angeles Opera

Luisa Fernanda - synopsis and notes
2004 Washington, Carlos Carbonell
Federico Moreno Torroba
Romero and Shaw
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