Think of the present day Arab Spring. In 1868 Spain, public dissent was in the air. The revolutionary fervor, called La Gloriosa (Glorious Revolution) led to the overthrow of Queen Isabella II and outcries for a government that spoke for the people. Real life events inspired composer Federico Moreno-Torroba who collaborated with librettists Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernandez Shaw in 1932 to find parallels and address bigger themes in Luisa Fernanda, now considered one of the most beautiful, and challenging zarzuelas of the 20th century.
The main characters in Luisa Fernanda are up in arms, fighting for justice, democracy and freedom. But what emerges as this production arcs into a climax is that Javier, Duchess Carolina, Luisa and Vidal fight for themselves as individuals. The characters are an odd lot of down-to-earth humans, who do not fit a precise definition of exalted 19th century romantic heroes and heroines. There are no true believers who remain loyal to a cause, except for Luisa, the only character who seems deeply committed to the Republican freedom fighters.
A wizard of several trades, Jose Sacin is still the baritone with a voice of liquid gold, who founded Zarzuela Di Si, giving promising young singers a chance to build craft and confidence. For this contribution we are grateful. Sacin is not only effective as the show’s musical director, adjusting to a new space in the Gunston Theatre II, but also successfully repeats his acclaimed, spectacular performance as Vidal Hernando, the altruistic farmer.
Since that performance three years ago at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington D.C., Sacin appears to have deepened his understanding of the role. With Vidal’s high point aria, “Ay, mi morena, morena clara!/Ah, my dark beauty, my fair, dark beauty,” at the prenuptial celebration, Sacin’s un-throttled exuberance quivers with deeply felt excitement and resonance, alternated with hushed tones.
What’s equally impressive is that Sacin has improved the dramatic action in Luisa Fernanda by reducing playing time to 90-minutes for Teatro de la Luna’s 14th Hispanic Theatre Festival.
Much improved program notes give you a brief outline for each of the three acts, making sense of the convoluted plot-driven, love-triangle story. The program also succinctly tells you that a zarzuela, filled with passion, contains “social criticism,” that later becomes evident in the scenes that expose social class prejudices. Although unmentioned, it also helps to recall that zarzuela derives from “zarzas,” meaning the wild bramble bushes that once surrounded Philip IV’s royal hunting palace in the 17th century. This musical genre became popular by humanizing the opera by alternating spoken and sung scenes, which is why there are two directors.
What’s important is Sacin’s direction of the music. Without an orchestra, pianist Tessa Hartle bravely accompanies a large ensemble of singers (I counted 14 at one point) including the four outstanding leads, who navigate difficult musical passages, chromatic modulations and whiplash syncopations. Teatro de la Luna director Mario Marcel succeeds in keeping character conflicts clear by giving the actors sweeping stage crosses that add meaningful emphasis, on a scaled-down set of platforms and chairs. (Characters change position on stage as they switch political allegieances from Monarchist to Rebel and vice versa.)
Mezzo-soprano Laura Virella, as Luisa, demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her acting as she effortlessly projects nuance from ebulliance to melancholia in her phrasing. She conveys a woman tortured with pleasurable pain at the loss of passionate, if adolescent, romantic love. Up to the end, she harbors her deep-seeded passion for Javier Moreno (tenor Manuel Gallegos), who is a chameleon-like social-climber, more reprobate than virtuous young hero.
The aristocratic Duchess Carolina (soprano Paola Neyra) flirts with Javier, by coquettishly mocking him as she flutters her feathery fan. And the fickle young soldier who succumbs to Carolina’s spell, changes his allegiances and pledges to join the army of the monarchists to fight for personal advantage with the higher class lady. Love can be bought by social rank and money. And at this point, we are left wondering what Luisa ever sees in this unfaithful, disloyal soldier of fortune. But women often prefer the bad guys and that’s the way it is.
On opening night, the Romero’s and Fernandez-Shaw’s words conveyed the political passion behind the seduction that occurs between royalty and peasant in “Caballero de Alto Plumero/Gentlemen with the plumed hats”. The lyrics in this duet are astonishingly subtle and flowery, characteristic of the elaborate poetry of Garcia Lorca. “That flower has come off the rosebush of my heart,” soprano Paola Neyra as the Duchess Carolina sings sweetly. The imagery is highly ornate, exaggerated, to make an impression on our hearts and memory. Such flourishing words could take more heft. But both singers, Gallegos, who effectively projects an immature young man, and Neyra show exciting promise as developing performers.
A must mention, however, is how Act II begins with an electric charge to echoing cannon and gunfire. Sacin projects body and soul into the thrilling timbre of his voice to become the character, Vidal, who has changed his politics and pledged support for the revolutionaries. It’s not because of deep belief but because although rejected once, he wants to try again to win broken-hearted Luisa on the rebound. When Vidal goes off, he fights bravely, not for the cause but for personal reasons, for love. “Luche La Fe Por El Triunfo/Fight for Faith, for Victory.” “Let faith fight for the triumph of a redeeming ideal. I am just a man and only fight for my heart. …..For the love of a woman I adore,… My ambition’s ideal is the love of the woman I adore.” Sacin delivers this aria with all stops out, as if in a baroque cathedral, to create a heart-stopping highpoint, the pithy marrow.
Switching sides and changing political allegiances are out in the open and appear to expose the corruption behind this “glorious revolution.” One minute Vidal is a Monarchist. The next minute he joins the rebellious insurgents. The situation is indicative of the changeable political climate of the times.
Performed in Spanish with English surtitles.
Luisa Fernanda has 3 performances remaining: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 18 and 19 at 8pm, Saturday, Nov 19 at 3pm at Gunston Performing Arts, 2700 S. Lang St, Arlington, VA.|
Details and tickets
Music by Federico Moreno Torroba
Libretto by Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernandez Shaw
Directed by Mario Marcel
Music direction by Jose Sacin
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Please note: Vidal Hernando is double-played by bartones Alex Aburqueque (on Fri. and Sat. evenings at 8 p.m.) and Jose Sacin repeats his opening night performance at Sat. matinee.
The character of Luisa is double-played by mezzo-sopranos Laura Virella and Elizabeth Ammerman, who is paired with Alburqueque.