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Jeffrey Kauffman
DVD Talk, June 2009

The Movie:

My hunch is if you quizzed a group of opera aficionados, hardly any of them would know who Federico Moreno Torroba was. But if you asked a similar group of classical guitar aficionados, at least one or two of them could give you a long laundry list of great works this Spanish composer who lived until 1982 wrote for famous players like Segovia. The fact is Torroba’s operatic efforts, in the smaller scale, more populist form known as zarzuela, were really his claim to fame in his native country, though their fame hasn’t really spread worldwide. Luisa Fernanda was his first unqualified success in this genre, and it receives a lovely interpretation starring Placido Domingo in this new BD release.

The zarzuela might be compared to the slightly more highbrow efforts in musical theater of, say, Schönberg and Boublil (Les Miserables)—that is, works which stay resolutely in a popular idiom while attempting to tackle more serious issues with a resultant elevated musical language. If you’re unfamiliar with Torroba’s colorful, almost glitzy, musical language, I would say his nearest counterpart whom you might have heard of would be Bizet, the French composer known for his unforgettable melodies and flashy musical stylings. Torroba works much the same territory, almost sounding at times like a Frenchman pretending to be Spanish (think Chabrier’s “Espana,” for example), so that it is sometimes hard to remember that he’s the real deal, and the others were mere pretenders, as it were. Torroba provides incessantly beautiful melodies, often soaring over equally incessantly rhythmic ostinati, sometimes with castanets clicking away, and also sometimes using nascent latin rhythms like the Bolero or Rhumba. At other times Torroba works a positively Viennese idiom (as odd as that may sound), crafting, for example, waltzes that could have come from the pen of Strauss.

Luisa Fernanda is an unabashedly political piece, and one must remember it was written in the early 1930s, when Spain was just a few years away from its devastating Civil War. Though the opera is set in the 19th century, the political issues are largely contemporary (for the 1930s, anyway), with revolutionaries warring with monarchists for the soul of a country. It’s probably hard to see how, for example, Fascists warring Communists, as the Spanish Civil War turned out to do, could be seen in the same light, but my hunch is that is exactly what may have spurred Torroba on, however unconsciously.

However the real soul of this opera is, as it is in so many works, one of unrequited love and mismatched lovers. Domingo plays Vidal, one of the landed gentry who yearns after Luisa (Nancy Herrera), who nonetheless is in love with Javier (Jose Bros). The political aspect rears its ugly head when Javier turns out to be a revolutionary and Vidal a monarchist, and so the opera ping pongs back and forth between a fairly traditional love triangle and a more complicated analysis of late 19th century Spanish politics. It is, in fact, the exact same territory, morally at least, that Les Miserables mines—the ambitions of the “common man” running headlong into the demands of the State. If things are a bit less clear cut in Luisa Fernanda, they’re no less compelling than they are in Hugo’s magnum opus.

This is a very simply staged, yet highly effective, reading of what has become one of Torroba’s best known works. Director Emilio Sagi presents us with an almost empty stage graced by a miniature model of Madrid. A black backdrop is redrawn several times with various rectangular configurations of white. The revolution itself plays out in shadow against an ecru scrim. It’s a uniquely successful gambit that allows the opera’s emotional content to remain front and center where it belongs. Jesus Lopez Cobos conducts the orchestra and chorus of Madrid’s Teatro Real with a firm hand, coaxing the multicolored orchestrations and rhythmic nuances out of the players with ease and assurance.

Luisa Fernanda also benefits mightily from the presence of Domingo, who is graduating into these darker character roles with a grace that some may have not expected from a star who was something akin to a matinee idol for so many years. His languid tenor is starting to reveal the beautiful burnish of age, and Torroba’s achingly gorgeous melodies are a perfect vehicle for him. The rest of cast follows suit in uniformly excellent vocal performances.

With its at least brief moments of spoken dialogue, and its uniformly symmetrical musical phrases, this is a great “beginner” opera for those who haven’t yet taken the plunge. For opera lovers, this represents a really lovingly presented reading of one the greatest examples of zarzuela, and it’s sure to be enjoyed by any lover of fine music and singing.

The Blu-ray

Video:

Luisa Fernanda’s AVC 1.78:1 image is incredibly sharp and well defined, and, despite a lot of the opera being costumed and staged in shades of white, has no blooming and maintains admirable contrast and saturation.

Sound:

Both the Spanish LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 mixes are excellent, though the 5.1 obviously offers much greater detail and separation. Strangely, the 2.0 seems to have more of a hall reverb effect applied to it, making it sound a little echo-ey. The orchestra and singers are all reproduced beautifully here, with superb balance and fidelity. Dynamic range is especially good on this BD, something that you’ll notice with the many percussive effects Torroba uses. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German.

Extras:

Aside from the typically excellent insert booklet essay (by director Sagi), the BD itself includes an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, and interviews with Domingo, Sagi and Cobos.

Final Thoughts:

Luisa Fernanda deserves to be better known and appreciated. Hopefully this excellent BD performance will help foster that appreciation. Beautifully played and sung, and with a striking physical production, this is zarzuela at its finest. Highly recommended.



Dr Svet Atanasov
Blu-ray.com, April 2009

ACT I

Madrid, 1868. The regime of Queen Isabella II is threatened by the Republican movement. At a square in the old city of Madrid, Mariana (Raquel Pierotti), an innkeeper, and three of her lodges, Rosita (Sabina Puertolas), Don Luis Nogales (Federico Gallar) and Anibal (Javier Ferrer), all passionate republicans, are conversing. They are joined by the Duchess (Mariola Cantarero), a loyal monarchist.

The military officer Javier (Jose Bros) arrives to see his fiancée Luisa (Nancy Herrera), who has already left for mass. Anibal approaches Javier and attempts to talk him into joining the republicans.

Luisa returns and Mariana immediately asks her to forget about Javier and instead meet Vidal Fernando (Placido Domingo), a wealthy landowner, who has come to Madrid to look for a wife. Vidal appears and begins flirting with Luisa. She flirts back, but tells him that her heart belongs to Javier.

After he learns that Javier is a revolutionary, Vidal quickly declares his commitment to the monarchist cause. He also vows to win Luisa’s heart. In the meantime, the Duchess seduces Javier in an attempt to hurt his credibility in front of his republican comrades. Vidal immediately proposes to Luisa.

ACT II

At the festival of San Antonio. Mariana meets Luisa, who tells her that she has arrived to meet Vidal. The Duchess appears and attempts to bribe Vidal into joining the monarchist movement. He rejects her at once.

Javier arrives and is immediately irritated by the sight of Luisa and Vidal talking. Luisa makes it clear that she prefers Vidal over Javier. Later on, Javier and other republicans clash with Vidal and the monarchists.

ACT III

The Revolution is over. The monarchy has fallen and most of its supporters have fled to Portugal. Javier is reported missing in battle. At Vidal’s estate, Mariana, Luisa and her father have arrived to help with the wedding preparations.

Anibal appears accompanied by Javier. He kneels in front of Luisa and asks for her forgiveness. Luisa admits that she still loves him but asks Javier to leave.

Vidal, who has been observing from afar, realizes that Luisa’s heart belongs to someone else and that she would never love him as much as she loves Javier. He reveals himself and immediately releases Luisa from her vow to marry him. Javier and Luisa depart Vidal’s estate.

Composed by Moreno Torroba, on a libretto by Federico Romero and Giulermo Fernandez Shaw, Luisa Fernanda is a Spanish zarzuela—a popular genre blending spoken dialog with dramatic operatic singing that flourished during the 17th century—that was first staged at Teatro Calderon in Madrid on March 26, 1932. Nowadays, together with La chulapona, Luisa Fernanda is one of Torroba’s most regularly performed works.

The opera is divided into three acts. The major themes in it are love, friendship and patriotism. Unlike traditional castizo zarzuelas, however—where the main characters are typically ordinary Spaniards—in Luisa Fernanda the protagonists are well-mannered and cultured.

This specific production of Luisa Fernanda was recorded live at the Teatro Real de Madrid on July 14th and 16th, 2006 (in co-production with Washington Opera and Los Angeles Opera). It was made by Emilio Sagi and it is based on an earlier staging for a concert performance of Luisa Fernanda at La Scala, Milan.

The lead singers are terrific. Legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo plays the ambitious landowner Vidal to perfection. On the other hand, his singing is pure and technically impeccable. Nancy Herrera’s impersonation of the beautiful Luisa Fernanda is just as memorable; her voice is relaxed, utterly secure and full of dynamic variety.

Emilio Sagi’s preference for a modern, minimalist look may seem a bit unusual at first, but as he admits in an interview supplied on this Blu-ray disc, his vision for Luisa Fernanda was driven by his desire to focus on the main characters and their dilemmas rather than the period environment traditional zarzuelas tend to promote. Finally, Maestro Cobos leads the Orchestra of the Teatro Real with notable precision and playfulness allowing the musicians to respond to the energetic singing and lead the audience along with them.

Video

Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080i “live” transfer, Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Opus Arte.

This is a solid addition to Opus Arte’s fantastic catalog of opera releases. Contrast is superb, clarity and detail simply phenomenal (some of the close-ups are amongst the best I have seen on Blu-ray) and the color-scheme very convincing. Furthermore, motion-judder is kept to an absolute minimum. Also, as expected, multiple HD cameras have been used to capture the singers and the orchestra (during the introductions we are given the opportunity to see Jesus Lopez Cobos conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real). As far as the actual production is concerned, I must point out a small issue that I detected with the stage lighting. For example, during ACT II there are a few scenes where it is fairly difficult to see the faces of the singers. This being said, this isn’t something that would affect your viewing experience in a dramatic fashion, but I do believe that the producers of Luisa Fernanda could have avoided the “shadow-effect” quite easily. Still, I have absolutely no problem recommending this Blu-ray release to opera lovers unfamiliar with Moreno Torroba’s work. (Note: This is a Region-Free Blu-ray disc which you could play on your PS3 or SA regardless of your geographical location)

Audio

There are two audio tracks on this Blu-ray disc: Spanish LPCM 5.1 and Spanish LPCM 2.0. I opted for the Spanish LPCM 5.1 track and later on did a few random comparisons with the Spanish LPCM 2.0 for the purpose of this review.

The Spanish LPCM 5.1 track is solid. There is plenty of depth, excellent separation between the orchestra and the singers, and absolutely no issues that I could detect with the mixing (dropouts, cracks, hissings). Furthermore, even though this is a live recording, the sound is notably crisp and full-bodied. On the other hand, the spoken dialog is crystal clear and very easy to follow.

The Spanish LPCM 2.0 track most definitely does not match the fluidity of the Spanish LPCM 5.1 track. The impressive dynamic amplitude the Spanish LPCM 5.1 track conveys is practically non-existent on the Spanish LPCM 2.0 track—the orchestra sounds dull, the singing isn’t as nuanced, and the depth I mentioned earlier is nowhere to be heard. The live hall-effect if also notably distracting. Therefore, I recommend that you opt for the Spanish LPCM 5.1 and avoid seeing Luisa Fernanda with the Spanish LPCM 2.0 track. (Note: Optional English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish subtitles are provided for the main feature).

Supplements

This Blu-ray disc arrives with a stylish booklet containing an informative note from Stage Director Emilio Sagi addressing the production history of Moreno Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. In addition to a short text explaining how the zarzuela evolved into an opera genre, there is also a brief synopsis for the opera. (Note: Each of the above texts is available in English, French, German, and Spanish).

On the actual disc, you will find a narrated synopsis for the opera, a cast gallery as well as interviews with Stage Director Emilio Sagi, conductor Jesus Lopes Cobos and Placido Domingo where the three discuss the production and history of the opera. (Note: Optional English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian subtitles are provided).

Final Words

Luisa Fernanda is a fantastic addition to Opus Arte’s already very impressive catalog of classical releases. Aside from the small lighting issue, which I addressed in my technical analysis, this is just about a perfect disc. I am definitely looking forward to more Spanish music being released on Blu-ray. I hope Manuel de Falla isn’t too far behind. Very Highly Recommended.






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8:27:18 AM, 26 December 2014
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