LA Opera 2018-19 Review: El Gato Montès / The Wildcat
Plácido Domingo, Ana María Martínez & Arturo Chacón-Cruz Bring Penella’s Work To LifeBy Gordon Williams
(Photo Credit: Cory Weaver)
Long before I arrived in Los Angeles, I read Edward Rothstein’s “New York Times” review of the LA Opera’s previous production in 1994 of Manuel Penella’s “El Gato Montès” and what he said there about LA Opera’s mounting of Zarzuelas as a “conscious effort to attract Hispanic audiences to the opera house.”
Curious, I bought CDs of other zarzuelas such as Amadeo Vives’ “Doña Francisquita” and became acquainted with a genre that struck me as stirring, colorful, exciting and compelling. I started to think – and this production from Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela sealed it for me – that zarzuela should be a normal part of the operatic diet.
But what is zarzuela?
It appears to have been named after the location of its first performances, a hunting lodge among the brambles (zarzas), where Spanish royalty saw the very first production in this genre, “El laurel de Apolo” by Calderón and Hidalgo, a Spanish version of Italian opera based, like other baroque operas, on a mythological theme. But zarzuela-proper (if we can use that term) really flourished from the 1850s. Its settings were more realistic (its characters closer to daily life), it spoke to the people, and it seemed to be a mix of French opéra-comique, Italian opera c.1840, and, later even, American musical theater. (Bear in mind that some of the more famous zarzuelas date from the 1910s. “El Gato Montès” was written in 1916).
Apparently some zarzuela purists dispute the zarzuela credentials of “El Gato Montès” A true zarzuela, they say, uses spoken dialogue. “El Gato Montès” is through-sung.
Well, I happen to love the combination of spoken word and music, especially dialogue with an underscore. But it doesn’t bother me to consider “El Gato Montès” an opera. In fact, I would rate it in a similar class to the “verismo” Italian opera of the early 20th century.
Penella’s “El Gato Montès” revolves around the gypsy woman Soleá (Ana María Martínez in this production) who is loved by two men – the torero Rafael (played here by a heroic-sounding Arturo Chacón-Cruz) and the outlaw Juanillo, known as “the wildcat” (the “gato montès” of the title). Plácido Domingo is Juanillo in this production making his role debut. He sang Rafael, the tenor role, in 1994, and is credible, in 2019, as the young man’s baritone rival!
Goaded by Juanillo, Rafael gets too close to a bull in the ring – something he has been specifically warned against by the gypsy fortune-teller (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) – and is fatally gored. But that doesn’t clear Juanillo’s path to Soleá. They run away together to the mountains where the outlaw is cornered. Just when Juanillo is about to be shot, Soleá, runs in front of a gun and both are killed.
Yes, it’s melodramatic, but the characters are recognizable in their earthiness and this quality was captured in this production by performers such as Rubén Amoretti, in his LA Opera debut, whose Padre Antón had that comic edge that denotes detailed characterization.
I kept thinking how beautifully this work was shaped, the symmetry for example of the way the priest changed into “civvies” so he could witness Rafael in the ring and then back into priestly garb for the final scenes, a small detail in the work perhaps but telling.
In his program essay, John Henken, noted that “fluid conversational exchange, with all its emotional variety underscored musically, is the prevailing texture” of this work. So well said! “The telegram says not to worry”, says one of the characters when Rafael has been slightly injured at a previous bullfight. It’s a bland statement but there are pert repeated notes in the woodwinds that lift it out of the mundane. And the authentic-sounding conversations continually rise to situations that are worth singing about, in those ornament-laden Spanish melodies that maintain the passionate line.
An Excellent Cast
This “Gato Montès” was helped by an excellent cast. As Frasquita, Rafael’s mother, and Hormigón, Rafael’s offsider (Sharmay Musacchio and Juan Carlos Heredia respectively) provided fine support for the principals. Arturo Chacón-Cruz was a suitably heroic Rafael; Ana María Martínez a notably strong Soleá. The proof of their feeling for each other lay in the blend of their voices and in their nicely-tuned harmonies, for example at the end of their love-duet, “My little gypsy with dark eyes…”
In his 151st role, Domingo brought wonderful complexity to his portrayal of the Wildcat. In all his “monologues” he conveyed a sense of the shape that was implied, for example, in lines like “How can I forget a love I can’t uproot?” (composer Manuel Penella wrote his own excellent libretto).
But Martínez’s “monologues” were highlights too. I was swayed by the emotional shape she built up over the course of a halting rhythm in Soleá’s reminiscence of her and Juanillo’s childhood together. And the most poignant moment in the opera, for me, was her declaration to Juanillo at the end, “Since I was a child you have been as big as the sun.”
This production came to LA from Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela. In contrast to the naturalism of LA Opera’s 1994 production, director Jorge Torres’s vision was minimalist and symbolic. I loved his ritualistic staging.
Rafael’s mortal-wounding in the 1994 production was depicted by footage of an actual mishap in the ring. Torres allowed this pivotal tragedy to happen offstage, as intended. Penella’s famous pasodoble played here by a thrilling offstage ensemble, is meant to cover for action we can’t see. I actually loved Torres’s use of the wings. Just before El Gato appears in Act one, the villagers leave the stage on both sides. They are brought back on at gunpoint by El Gato’s henchmen. There was also an effective darkness throughout. Perhaps the most striking of Francisco Leal’s designs was that huge, ornate mirror, reflecting a bullfighter’s narcissism, hanging down in the blackness of Act two scene one.
The opera’s village was full of dancers and the choreography of Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega was a vital ingredient of the show. If I have one little gripe it’s that the stamping of the dancers’ feet during the Children’s Chorus “Greetings to Soleá, flower of all the gypsies” did not produce a clean enough sound (a resonant set surface?) to provide a clean counterpoint to one of my favorite Penella melodies. But Martínez’s later participation in a slow, almost-hypnotic dance, particularly her full extension of hand-gesture, was breathtaking and indicated her full immersion in the style and atmosphere of this work.
Musically I found the production most engaging. I admired the LA Opera Chorus’s negotiation of involved harmonies in “Flee, bandit”. Conductor Jordi Bernàcer maintained exciting momentum and skillfully shepherded the orchestra through tricky metrical shifts. Once again I want to acknowledge individual players, such as cellist John Walz, for their solos but also commend the smooth transference of instrumental color from one instrument to another in the elucidation of many a line.
This is a work that is close to Domingo’s heart. It was in the repertoire of his parents’ zarzuela company. Bringing it a second time to LA is quite a gift from the company’s General Director. The work deserves a home in this beautiful city (hermosa ciudad) of the angels.