Monday, May 20, 2019

Domingo's 151st role accompanies zarzuela's great appeal in a passionately presented El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") at L.A. Opera

The drama in Spanish composer and librettist Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") is intense and on the edge. Around the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of the bullfight, two hot-blooded males spin out of control like tornados around a beautiful young village girl in a love-triangle at boiling point. On the surface, it has much of the flavour of French composer Georges Bizet’s popular opera Carmen. Penella’s work which premiered in Madrid in 1916, however, is noticeably more sentimental and the music, while passionate, stirring and whirls from highlight to highlight, occasionally makes abrupt and awkward transitions that affect the dramatic flow.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael (centre) in L.A. Opera's El Gato Montés
Nonetheless, it’s a thrilling piece of music drama - seasoned with little light comic touches - that blends romance, local culture and religion with the sweeping rhythms, lyrical warmth and melodic charms that makes zarzuela what it is. Kudos to L.A. Opera for bringing director Jorge Torres’ El Gato Montés in a production from today’s epicentre of the art form, Teatro della Zarzuela in Madrid.

Of course, that has much to do with Artistic Director Plácido Domingo in the driver’s seat and he makes a strong case for its cause. It’s not the first time L.A. Opera have staged Penella’s work either. Back in 1994 it was presented for the first time in L.A. with Domingo, 35 years younger, singing the tenor role of Rafael Ruiz, the young, possessive and blinkered bullfighter. On this occasion, Anton Chacón-Cruz took to the bullfighting spotlight with ease, giving Rafael showiness and showmanship with a stellar radiant tenor to match.

In the meantime, as the fugitive and outlaw Juanillo, the "Wild Cat", the 78 year-old Domingo added his 151st role to an extraordinary career. Once again, Domingo commanded the stage with a performance that demonstrated age’s limitless possibility. At this penultimate performance, with no sign of tiring, tenor-turned baritone Domingo soared through his music with a blasting entrance as Juanillo interrupts the town festivities that celebrate Rafael’s promotion to matador at a recent Madrid bullfight. From there, Domingo unleashed in convincing voice and fine acting just how determined Juanillo could be in wanting to stand in Rafael’s way for the girl they love, Soleá. In Domingo, whose warm and molten baritone was propelled with utter ease, the bravado shone from an emotionally scarred character who, in the opera’s backstory, had defended Soleá and killed a man.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael, Ana María Martínez as Soleá
and Plácido Domingo as Juanillo
Chacón-Cruz’s Rafael stood his ground, providing the combative tension between the two and of a man who puts his faith in God. In prayer, as he prepares for a bullfight in Seville that seemingly no victory will guarantee his life while Juanillo is around, the lofty high notes rang brilliantly and the passionate rendering of Rafael’s heart for his Soleá blazed to dangerous levels.

Set to marry one but in love with the other, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez depicted young village beauty Soleá with strength and stature. It’s not easy accepting why Soleá acts as she does. Her raisin d’être often feels like leftovers from the emphasis placed on Juanillo and Rafael’s singular desire to have her. But Martínez used her captivating style to great affect, her lush and vivid sound as decorated and resplendent as the flamenco dresses that enliven festivities. Notably, in duet with Chacón-Cruz and Domingo, Martínez demonstrated her ability to blend expression and sensuality with affecting results that tempered the testosterone around her tugged-at Soleá.

The supporting cast also rose to the occasion in splendid form. Big gravelly bass Rubén Amoretti’s vocal flexibility and assured performance coloured village priest Padre Anton with communal leadership and animated good humour. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera floated impressive dark hues as the Fortune Teller who reads the impending tragedy on Rafael’s palm and E. Scott Levin solidly and faithfully supported Rafael as his friend and picador Hormigón.

Plácido Domingo as Juanillo and Ana María Martínez as Soleá
Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer provided the heat and zest to hurtle the drama forward with the L.A. Opera Orchestra playing an unblemished performance in the pit. Dotted in the drama, the choreography of Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega added exhilarating and forceful step to proceedings courtesy of 16 well-synchronised dancers, filling out the stage with the unified voice of the L.A. Opera Chorus of peasants. Fortunately, Torres’ clear and thoughtful direction carefully allowed drama not to be overridden by spectacle.

Clever too was stage and lighting designer Francisco Leal’s evocative and economical creation that relied on little more than a rock-hewn breadth of steps, spare projections and a few props, including a magnificent oversized elaborate mirror that hangs in Act 2 to signify the status bestowed on the matador. Elsewhere, darkness seeped into the distance to give weight to the brooding nature of events.

In bringing zarzuela to the L.A. Opera audience, Domingo shows how El Gato Montés is much more than a novelty. That said, as a repertoire title the case doesn’t stack up but what does excite is the thought that thousands of other Spanish zarzuela lie in wait for newfound discovery.

El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat")
L.A. Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Centre
Until 19th May, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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