Florida Grand Opera delivers the zarzuela goods with an inspired, superbly sung “Luisa Fernanda”

By David Fleshler

Àngel Òdena as Vidal Hernandez and Amparo Navarro in the title role of Florida Grand Opera's "Luisa Fernanda." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas.

The tenor and soprano engage in a passionate love duet. The orchestra thunders as a gang of revolutionaries prepare to kill a captured officer. The soprano melts the mob’s violent anger with an aria in his defense.

In many ways it was a typical night at the opera. But the language on stage was Spanish, not Italian, and the performance Saturday night in Miami of Luisa Fernanda by Florida Grand Opera represented the company’s first foray into the world of zarzuela, the Spanish-language operettas that combine music and singing with spoken dialogue.

Traditionalists may grumble that the company should stick to Verdi and Puccini and save its experimentation for neglected works of genuine opera. But Saturday’s season-opening FGO performance succeeded on all counts — with excellent singing, an imaginative staging and fine work in the orchestra pit — showing this form in the best light and providing many people their first chance to experience a brand of musical theater that has yet to enter the U.S. cultural mainstream.

The zarzuela, composed by Federico Moreno Torroba, is set in the creaking, decaying Spain of the mid-19th century, as Queen Isabel II faces a revolt from those who want to turn the country into a republic. Luisa Fernanda, a young Madrid woman of modest background, is torn between two men, the dashing soldier Javier Moreno and the prosperous, decent but dull farmer Vidal Hernandez. Javier becomes bewitched by the beautiful widowed duchess Carolina, who draws him toward the royalist side. Vidal joins the liberals. They fight over Luisa as well as the future of Spain, with arias, love duets and moments of crackling high drama.

Musically the 1932 work should appeal to anyone who enjoys late 19th-century Italian opera, particularly the verismo works of Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni. A Spanish element flavors much of the music, but it still feels close to the European mainstream; when the chorus — the men in white top hats, the women with parasols — perform a dance number, it could have been a scene from a Johann Strauss operetta.

The only element that may be hard-going — at least for non-Spanish speakers — were the sections in which the performers engage in spoken dialogue, a characteristic element of zarzuela, as it is for most musical comedies. But these sections don’t last long, FGO having already trimmed them for this production, and the English translations above the stage helped throughout.

A major reason for the evening’s success was FGO’s apparent determination to present this zarzuela as a living artistic entity rather than a period piece. Instead of filling the stage with flamenco dancers, women with castanets, a visiting bullfighter and scenery from old Madrid, FGO opted for a spare, stylish, modernistic production from Madrid’s Teatro Real that used gray and white walls, a backdrop of orange or black to indicate day and night, and a few items such as cafe tables or a tree to suggest the setting.

As the young officer Javier Moreno, the tenor Antonio Gandía brought a real leading man’s voice to the role, with lots of ping, flexibility and intensity. His voice isn’t large, and his singing occasionally got buried under the orchestra. This is in part due to Torroba’s tendency to double the vocal line, particularly in De este apacible rincón de Madrid, in which Javier describes his ascent from modest beginnings. But Gandia convincingly conveyed the soldier’s fickle but strong romantic passions in his duets with Carolina, and he brought vulnerability and passion to his singing in the final act as he pleads for Luisa’s love.

The baritone Àngel Òdena gave a big, burly performance as the love struck landowner Vidal Hernandez. He occasionally used too much vibrato, losing the tonal center. but his powerful voice gave a warm, if rough humanity to what is probably the zarzuela’s most sympathetic character, as in Luche la fe por el triunfo, where he says he’s fighting only for Luisa’s love.


Antonio Gandia as Javier Moreno and Davinia Rodríguez as Carolina in FGO's "Luisa Fernanda." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas.

As the duchess Carolina, Davinia Rodríguez dominated virtually every scene she was in. She carried herself with the easy superiority of one who know that if she tosses her jacket behind her someone will catch it. Vocally the soprano was the standout of the evening. She displayed a creamy, glossy voice to her seduction of Javier, in Caballero del alto plumero, but brought great character to the performance, allowing a tone of irritation to creep into her voice as she tried without success to lure Vidal to her side.

Amparo Navarro, the soprano in the role of Luisa Fernanda, effectively played the role of the good girl torn between the desires of her head and her heart. Her greatest moment came as she defied the crowd that wanted to kill Javier, putting herself between them as she dominated the mob vocally with a large, rich voice.

The young Spanish conductor Pablo Mielgo skillfully led an energetic performance by the orchestra, never stinting on the dramatics but always keeping the pace moving. Javier Ulacia’s fluent, unobtrusive stage direction also helped maintain strong forward momentum.

The zarzuela gives a significant role to the chorus as Madrid residents and rural farmhands. Under the attentive direction of John Keene, the FGO chorus delivered resoundingly, with a confident, vocally strong performance that was one of the highlights of the production.

Will this be the opera company’s first and last foray into zarzuela? Possibly not. In a pre-concert talk, Justin Moss, FGO’s director of Broward operations, said the company will gauge audience interest, and if it’s favorable, produce a zarzuela every few years.

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Luisa Fernanda runs through Nov. 26 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and Dec. 1-3 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. fgo.org; 800-741-1010. (All tickets are sold out for the Nov. 15 gala performance in which Plácido Domingo will sing the role of Vidal Hernandez.)

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Florida Grand Opera delivers the zarzuela goods with an inspired, superbly sung “Luisa Fernanda””

  1. Posted Nov 15, 2011 at 10:26 am by Cynthia Garcia

    I had never attended an opera performance but now that I have I am happy to say: “It was amazing, compelling, the oprea chorus and cast were absolutely” Stupendous! Encore!

  2. Posted Dec 02, 2011 at 10:29 am by James Gensel

    Fantastic production! In Ft. Lauderdale the brightness of the backdrop made it hard to read the supertitles.

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Sun Nov 13, 2011
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