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Two and Two: Luisa Fernanda Puts the WNO at .500

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, 'Luisa Fernanda,' Spinning Fluff Into Gold (Washington Post, November 8)

Tim Smith, Domingo is right at home in a zarzuela (Baltimore Sun, November 8)

T. L. Ponick, Let down for 'Luisa' (Washington Times, November 7)
When the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented on Plácido Domingo performing Luisa Fernanda at La Scala in Milan a couple years ago, it noted that Mr. Domingo had not only lowered his register but also his standards. The Washington National Opera's choice to stage this "last of the great Romantic zarzuelas" by Federico Moreno Torroba is a direct result of the Maestro's enthusiasm for it. Domingo Sr. and his wife were, after all, part of Torroba's touring company, and the light baritone role of Vidal Hernando runs in the WNO artistic director's blood: his father had created the role, while his mother was the premiere Luisa Fernanda.

All that history and enthusiasm doesn't make it great opera, though. Not even (or especially not) at almost two hours. It was impossible to sell out a production of Luisa Fernanda a few years ago in the region (at a smaller venue, at lower prices, catered to the Spanish-speaking community in the area) and it won't be easy to sell it this time around, at WNO prices. Enthusiasts say it's better than Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, which is, if you feel like me, a rather dubious compliment to begin with.

Plácido DomingoLike some works, zarzuelas, extensive ones especially, are local products and have difficult times being exported. Die Fledermaus is best done in Vienna, a production of Die Feuersnot should not even be attempted outside of Munich. Luisa Fernanda, too, should have stayed at home. That being said, the uplifting element of this performance, especially in the wake of the dismally sung Il Trovatore (see the Ionarts review), are some glorious voices. First and foremost, Plácido Domingo's Vidal—a role he knows forwards and backwards, inside and out—and a role that suits his glorious, though aging voice surprisingly well. Israel Lozano's Javier, too, was impressive enough, and Maria José Montiel's Luisa had some very beautiful moments.

But opera is so much more than singing (even if voices are the sine qua non of every performance), and a story that is so extraordinarily silly, peppered with memorable (and less than lucidly translated) lines such as "Lovely Señora, how many leaves does your basil have?" and "the parasol's shade is ideal for soft serenading, yes, blessed be the parasol" fails to convince me. The story—surely due to some fault of my own—made little to no sense to me; the synopsis confused more than it enlightened.

Seeing Vidal as an old man—even an energetic, juicy-voiced old man such as is Mr. Domingo—makes the character look even more silly and foolish than he (the character, not the Maestro) already is. It did little to further the believability of a plot I admittedly could not follow to begin with. I felt like an Englishman reading Derrida: not only did I not understand it, I didn't trust it, either.

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F. M. Torroba, Luisa Fernanda

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Zarzuelas: Marina - La Verbena De La Paloma - Bohemios - Dona Francisquita, Domingo, Bayo, Kraus
The staging was not particularly inventive or evocative, but very easy on the eyes. A little happy revolution, a little shooting, a little running to and fro... a whole lotta love... pretty costumes. An out-of-place, somewhat unsubtle construction-paper model town with cut-out letters spelling "Madrid" behind it (all no taller than ten inches) looked like something the stage manager's little kids had forgotten to take from the proscenium once done playing with it.

Luisa Fernanda has its delightful moments, semi-catchy tunes, and for those who are culturally predisposed, it may prove to be a delight. I found it very, very long, and, quite frankly, mind-numbingly stupid. The best I can say about it is that it sounds like Johann Strauss, Jr., after one too many bad paellas.

By my count, the WNO is now two and two (after a nice start), and some magic is due to happen in the next production. Appropriately they will soon present Mozart's last Singspiel, which is said to provide for that magic on a good day. Let's hope.

P.S. Philip Kennicott's lovely review is the perfect antidote to my loathing: He could do what I was not able to do: Like the whole thing. Only that the stage wasn't minimalist, it was lean. Minimalism is something else... perhaps try a Dieter Dorn production for that.

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