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You’ve heard about it, you’ve wondered about it, you may even have fantasized about it. But will it be tough on the backside? Come on, don’t be shy! Now is your chance to try an opera. What could be better: here is a modest length (just two hours including a twenty-minute intermission), easy-to-follow, fun, witty, heart-tugging story with delightful melodies sung by extraordinary voices. And the beauty of it is, you can even go with your snooty opera-buff friends, because they’ll love it too.
Federico Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda comes to us thanks to the personal history of Placido Domingo, General Director of the Washington National Opera. Domingo was born and bred on a type of Spanish opera known as zarzuela. This interesting genre blends the easy charm of musical theater with the full-bore magic of traditional opera. Fernanda is a fine example of this special style. And considering that Domingo is one of the great tenors of our day, it is fascinating to have this glimpse into his earliest musical influences.
The story is simple and completely recognizable: Will the fiery Luisa Fernanda go for the gad-about bad boy Javier, sung by Israel Lozano, or stick with the trustworthy and adoring, but rather less flashy farmer, Vidal Hernando, sung by Domingo. The plot moves along nicely and Luisa keeps us guessing until the end. (Hint: the finale is more musical theatre than opera.)
Luisa is sung by mezzo-soprano Maria Jose Montiel, who brings an interestingly contemporary flair without compromising the late nineteenth century setting. Luisa is thus a reasonably believable woman, blissfully failing to comport herself like a hot-house orchid in a wind-storm –unlike so many divas confronted by affairs of the heart.
Even better, she sings with a gorgeously full and velvety smoothness (sounds like chocolate doesn’t it? Well, she sounds as good as Godiva, but with zero calories). Her special sound will lull your ears and your soul. She also has a rather fun and feisty speaking voice oozing with personality. As always, Domingo, singing baritone, delivers his role with talent and skill of the highest caliber. His voice remains buoyant, flexible and magnificent.
Tenor Lozano seems ever so slightly ill at ease, not quite projecting the kind of bravado you’d expect of an irresistible womanizer. On the other hand, he is an accomplished tenor, with good range and he brings some real power at times.
Mention must be made of Suzanna Guzman as Mariana, Luisa’s confident, and Elena de la Merced as Duchess Carolina, Luisa’s rival for the attention of the errant Javier. Guzman brings a superb dramatic and comic timing to her role and is a true linchpin in this production. De la Merced has a memorably lilting soprano voice and she artfully crafts her Duchess in a way that avoids the usual stereotypes.
The set balances a very dramatic use of light projections with a few simple but playful touches. The actions, both physical and emotional, remain uncluttered, thanks to director Emilio Sagi. Conductor Miguel Roa leads the orchestra ably, though at times things lag just a tad.
So go ahead and call the biggest opera aficionado you know and invite yourself along. Wear what you want, have a drink (don’t miss the Van Gogh martini bar to the left of the Kennedy bust) and enjoy an evening of laughter, charm and world-class singing. You won’t regret it.