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Luisa, at last!

Florida Grand Opera
11/12/2011 -  & November 15, 18, 22, 20, 23, 26 (Miami), & December 1, 3 (Fort Lauderdale), 2011
Federico Moreno Torroba: Luisa Fernanda
Amparo Navarro (Luisa Fernanda), Antonio Gandia (Javier Moreno), Àngel Òdena (Vidal Hernandez), Davinia Rodriguez (Carolina), Raquel Pierotti (Mariana), Rafa Castejón (Aníbal), Rebekah Diaz (Rosita), Miguel Sola (Don Luis Nogales), David Rubiera (Bizco Porras), Daniel Shirley (Vendedora), Martin Nusspaumer (Saboyano), Ryan Milstead (Don Lucas), Craig Colclough (Capitán)
Florida Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, John Keene (chorus master), Pablo Mielgo (conductor)
Emilio Sagi (director and set design), Maria Jose Ojanguren (costume design), Eduardo Bravo (lighting design), Nuria Castejon (choreography)

À. Òdena & A. Navarro (Courtesy FGO)

Florida Grand Opera has resisted presenting a zarzuela even though the community has had a tremendous Hispanic population for decades. Many have seen Luisa Fernanda at Miami’s Sociedad Pro-Arte Grateli which offers zarzuela and sometimes Viennese operetta in Spanish translation. But this is the first time it has been done by Miami’s opera company. So this event is a big deal; not just artistically but symbolically. Many in the audience were tempted to sing along with songs they have known since childhood; different recordings have been shared and compared for years. To Spanish speakers the score is as familiar as Oklahoma! is to first-language English speakers. Although one might not understand Spanish, it is impossible to miss the beauty and intention of the music. To zarzuela novices, the important question is, does Luisa Fernanda work as good musical theatre?

Though some Florida Grand Opera followers worry that this unfamiliar work could indicate that the repertory might soon find a spot for Mamma Mia!, Luisa Fernanda is not the piece to suggest this. The plot involves a May-December romance, threatened by a young tenor who is more devoted to his political future than to any woman. Certainly there are shades of The Most Happy Fella but unlike the Broadway musical, the zarzuela does not end happily for the old man, and probably Luisa will regret her choice before too long. The music takes us through many different plot twists in a manner not unlike an operetta by Friml or Romberg. Torroba was a serious composer who knew exactly what his audience wanted and creatively shaped his music to a solid story with three-dimensional characters; it is not only
rewarding but a lot of fun. Those who approach it overly seriously are likely to be disappointed. Though it is set during the revolution which led to Queen Isabella II’s exile, the politics don’t really have much to do with the outcome. It is simply a backdrop for a charming romance.

But in zarzuela land we are here for the music. It is lovely though not until the soprano-baritone-tenor trio does it resemble the intensity of opera, perhaps Spanish verismo. But the music well suits its characters and is memorable and hummable to even the most ardent opera fanatics.
As far as the singing, all four leads were solid. Davinia Rodriguez’s Carolina has a powerful and at times even necessarily shrill soprano. This is the piece’s villainess and Rodriguez nails it, having a ball playing the troublemaker. Antonio Gandía had a bit of a lapse in his opening aria when the orchestra overpowered him in a low lying section. But he bounced back and commandingly became the unsympathetic opportunist who breaks Luisa’s heart. Ampara Navarro is listed in the program as a soprano but her dark warm tone suggests a high mezzo. Musically she was the high point of the evening and approaches the role with an intensity that gives the piece perhaps more weight than it deserves. And though the title is Luisa Fernanda, the zarzuela belongs to Vidal. Àngel Òdena makes a great hero. His rich baritone well contrasts Javier’s tenor; he makes a dashingly noble middle-aged farmer. Luisa’s turnabout in the last seconds makes perfect sense; which sane female wouldn’t take the same direction.

The supporting cast is all sound and effective though special mention goes to the Saboyano of Martin Nusspaumer who gets the evening off to a tender and melancholy start with his memorable “Marchaba a ser soldado.”

It is clear that the design is not in a traditional style. Shades of blacks and whites, with little variety, creates an intensity that overpowers this light story. This is Spain; we need color. The chorus being in all white suits during the famous Parasol Waltz creates an image of an Astaire-Rogers film and is out of place in 1860s Madrid. Details like having the male chorus not suitably groomed takes away from the intended elegance. The Lionel Train set of Madrid serves no purpose and when it is covered up by a tarp in order to be littered with model trees suggesting we are now in the country, it makes one ask why the program announcement isn’t enough. By simply drawing curtains to signify locations, while not intrusive, seems a weak substitute for a director confidently creating appropriate stage blocking. Why couldn’t the choreography have offered more elaborate dances? In spite of this, the show moves very confidently and the decision to use a simple placement of players for the final tableau effectively undermines the libretto’s unsatisfying ending. Luisa is a smart, mature young woman; she should reconcile with Vidal instead of going off with the roving tenor who has a bad haircut.

There might be questions and comments about what took Florida Grand Opera so long to offer a zarzuela; but it is here, finally. Let’s be grateful it all turned out so well. Since Miami has Grateli, probably a regular dose of zarzuela is not necessary; but to offer it, or Gilbert and Sullivan, or even one of the great Broadway musicals once in a while, the company becomes even more substantial.

Jeff Haller



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