, July 2007
Arguably the last great classical zarzuela, Luisa Fernanda was written in 1932 and presented in Madrid just before the short-lived Second Republic that preceded the Spanish Civil War. It was an enormous hit, and, like Doña Francisquita, its elder sister by a decade, it had a marvelous libretto by the team of Romero and Fernández Shaw that picturesquely recalled a mid-nineteenth-century Madrid of lovers and schemers. With a glorious, fiercely melodious and brilliantly orchestrated score, Luisa Fernanda also had behind it the actual events of the 1868 revolution that toppled the regime of Isabella II.
Not that these occupy too much time in this revival of Federico Moreno Torroba’s masterpiece, which began at La Scala in 2003 (a rare instance of a zarzuela produced there) and was seen in 2006 at Madrid’s Teatro Real, where it was broadcast. The complicated political events that propel the plot are, somewhat understandably, cut down for modern consumption, leaving the reasonably colorful story of a proud, penniless young lady torn between two suitors – a womanizing young hussar and an older, richer and kinder landowner – complicated by a devious duchess.
But visual color is drained from the rest of this production by its absence of scenery and its bleached-out costumes. A small plaster model labeled “Madrid,” a mass of white chairs and dialogues shorn of many specific historical references leave the pale costumes by Pepa Ojanguren doing most of the work in establishing any specific atmosphere.
Emilio Sagi’s production and design are otherwise striking for certain tableaux, among them the well-staged mazurka of the parasols and a final bittersweet scene in a plantation near Portugal. But a crucial encounter between the high-plumed soldier in the Plazuela de San Javier and the duchess on her balcony, indicated by an enormous rising platform, is ludicrous, and the soldier’s celebrated paean to his beloved “peaceful corner of Madrid” is awkwardly addressed to the model city to the left of his feet.
Musically, things are in fine, well-characterized shape. Nancy Herrera is delightful and vulnerable as the conflicted heroine, and José Bros, while not precisely heroic-looking, sings with lusty vigor as the soldier. Plácido Domingo, who sang the soldier role splendidly in the last complete recording (for Auvidis Valois), is now the elder suitor, and his sincere, ardent acting and ringing baritone are nothing short of wondrous. As the notes point out, Domingo’s father sang the role of Vidal famously in Spain and Mexico, where the son recited sections of Luisa Fernanda like the Lord’s Prayer while growing up.
Mariola Cantarero, as the duchess, could be a bi more catty, but the supporting cast – especially Raquel Pierotti and Javier Ferrer – is excellent. The Teatro Real’s orchestra under Jesús López-Cobos gives much of the production’s missing coloration to the score. So many superb numbers follow one another – especially with the dialogue pruned – that one cannot help smiling at this luminous cavalcade of streetsinger ballads, love duets and romantically charged ensembles. You’ll be humming its habaneras, mazurkas, and jotas incesantemente. I just wish the production looked less like a staged concert version.