What would be the aural equivalent of Dorian Gray’s portrait? Might it be a CD of an aging opera singer, the voice becoming more parched and geriatric with each passing year, the vibrato flapping like sagging skin, the high notes dropping away one by one? Plácido Domingo must have a recording like that in his collection: How else to explain the stunning quality of his voice as he edges into his mid-60s? Domingo’s vocal longevity has been much remarked upon, but every season it becomes a thing of even greater wonder. He’s managed to maintain his unique timbre, with its oaken solidity and silvery finish, its boyishly eager phrasing and romantic swagger. Not to mention its juice: After four decades of pounding, Domingo can still sing pretty much any other tenor off the stage in any major work you’d like.
But for all the world’s-greatest-operas repertoire Domingo commands, his tenor is a particular champion of zarzuela, Spain’s homegrown form of light opera. In fact, he cut his teeth in the zarzuela company his parents performed in and ran. And despite the fact that Washington National Opera audiences wouldn’t know a zarzuela if one kicked us in the pantalones, Domingo has been introducing local opera lovers to the best examples of the art form every few seasons now. This year, it’s Federico Moreno Torroba’s odd little 1932 charmer, Luisa Fernanda, which mixes the usual zarzuela elements of farce, melodrama, and romance—of both the chaste and the bodice-ripping varieties—and throws in a disorienting jolt of agitprop, as well.
The result? Well, seamstress Luisa loves revolutionary colonel Javier, but when he betrays her with Duchess Carolina—while also betraying the People by joining the monarchists—Luisa turns her attentions to wealthy landowner Vidal Hernando. Hernando joins the revolutionaries, not so much out of sympathy with the common man, but out of romantic rivalry with Javier. In a series of twists and turns, the revolution prevails, Javier and the Duchess are ruined, and Luisa agrees to marry the avuncular Hernando. But true love, of course, will out, and on their wedding day Hernando releases Luisa to pursue the now down-and-out Javier, whom she hasn’t stopped thinking about since Day One. The story ends with Hernando’s lament that his life will mean nothing without Luisa.
It’s tear-jerking stuff, at least on paper. But Luisa is so schizophrenic in tone that it reinvents itself repeatedly. Act 1 couldn’t be lighter: a breezy romantic comedy of the gentlest disposition, the easy sway of Spanish folk melodies evoking the perfume of a summer evening. Come Act 2, though, the revolution has arrived in Madrid—and Kurt Weill has arrived in the orchestration. Characters such as Luisa suddenly step out of their boilerplate dialogues to make eat-the-rich speeches that, for all the nobility of their sentiment, are stridently at odds with the light opera happening all around them: Imagine Rosa Luxemburg showing up at Prince Orlofsky’s party in Die Fledermaus. And then, just as we’ve really started to shift stylistic gears, the wedding-reception finale jettisons both the fluffy tone of the first act and the soapbox vibe of most of the second in favor of a weepy final curtain of almost Tchaikovskian melancholy. (The libretto, by the way, is credited to Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernández Shaw. It’s too bad that other Shaw, Jorge Bernardo, couldn’t have dropped over from England to help those guys upholster all their political rhetoric in a more appropriate drawing-room velvet.)
Throughout, Luisa somehow manages to be quite lovely musically. Torroba, a 20th-century composer frequently looking back to the 19th, was an engaging melodist whose suave, Impressionist-tinged score is rich with Spanish flavor, all teasingly syncopated bass lines and warm coloration. Torroba turned out some terrific pieces for classical guitar—not surprising, given that the accompaniments to several arias are just crying out to be strummed—and his writing for the voice is felicitous, too, especially in the character of Luisa.
The role of Hernando is far less musically demanding—not to mention much lower-lying—than the Verdi and Wagner heroes Domingo has put his boldest interpretive stamp on. But it’s a part tailor-made for the patrician grace and aging-Casanova appeal he’s demonstrated in a host of other operas, and it taps into the baritonal lower register that has burnished in his voice over the past 20 years. He acts it with simple, touching conviction and sings it like nobody’s business. In fact, so secure and idiomatically steeped is Domingo in this music, so naturally responsive to the Spanish text, I found myself feeling guilty on opening night that I had been lulled into the sheer, ear-balming pleasure of his singing and hadn’t been scrutinizing every note as if this role might be his last. After all, the man has lived several vocal lifetimes already. But why talk swan songs here? Sometimes you should just sit back and enjoy.
Pity the poor tenor who has to go head-to-head with Domingo in the role of Javier. But Israel Lozano holds his own quite well, with a sweetly lyrical voice of some carrying power and a natural way with his acting. (Torroba doesn’t make heavy demands on his singers, so casting youthful performers such as Lozano isn’t just possible, but also desirable.) Similarly, Maria José Montiel’s commanding, dark-toned mezzo keeps Luisa the center of attention whenever Domingo is offstage, and she makes us care about the girl’s divided heart. If her high notes lose color and take on an edge, that’s a trait she shares with the physically stunning, bright-voiced soprano Elena de la Merced, whose Duchess is a memorably elegant seductress. The ensemble is drawn together with easygoing verve and born-to-the-style assurance by conductor Miguel Roa.
The production, by the WNO, Los Angeles Opera, and Madrid’s Teatro Real, is refreshingly free of the soul-killing Styrofoam stucco and wads of patently fake vegetation so beloved for “quaint” works like this one. In their place are handsome black-and-white portals, those in the back rigged to open and close whenever hope beckons or betrayal looms; a sky of clear incandescent bulbs; and a cluster of white wooden chairs. All of these design tropes—as well as the bleached-out model of Madrid and the diaphanous, scene-changing curtains pulled into place by certain characters—may be long familiar from minimalist productions encountered in the theater. But who can remember when such spare means have been employed so evocatively in the service of light opera? Set designer Paul Taylor and lighting designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe are well-paired with costume designer Pepa Ojanguren, whose palette of whites, creams, and tans looks gorgeous against the cool starkness defining the stage.
Emilio Sagi’s stage direction is as simply eloquent and admirably uncluttered as the mise-en-scène—indeed, this production is no less brilliantly conceived than the WNO’s two knockout season-openers. Though many opera lovers will no doubt be hastening to the Kennedy Center to hear a living legend, they’ll be getting something not even Plácido Domingo can deliver on his own: a first-rate piece of musical theater.CP