My hunch is if you quizzed a group of opera aficionados, hardly any of them would know who Federico Moreno Torroba was. But if you asked a similar group of classical guitar aficionados, at least one or two of them could give you a long laundry list of great works this Spanish composer who lived until 1982 wrote for famous players like Segovia. The fact is, Torroba's operatic efforts, in the smaller scale, more populist form known as zarzuela, were really his claim to fame in his native country, though their fame hasn't really spread worldwide. Luisa Fernanda was his first unqualified success in this genre, and it receives a lovely interpretation starring Placido Domingo in this new BD release.
The zarzuela might be compared to the slightly more highbrow efforts in musical theater of, say, Schönberg and Boublil (Les Miserables)--that is, works which stay resolutely in a popular idiom while attempting to tackle more serious issues with a resultant elevated musical language. If you're unfamiliar with Torroba's colorful, almost glitzy, musical language, I would say his nearest counterpart whom you might have heard of would be Bizet, the French composer known for his unforgettable melodies and flashy musical stylings. Torroba works much the same territory, almost sounding at times like a Frenchman pretending to be Spanish (think Chabrier's "Espana," for example), so that it is sometimes hard to remember that he's the real deal, and the others were mere pretenders, as it were. Torroba provides incessantly beautiful melodies, often soaring over equally incessantly rhythmic ostinati, sometimes with castanets clicking away, and also sometimes using nascent latin rhythms like the Bolero or Rhumba. At other times Torroba works a positively Viennese idiom (as odd as that may sound), crafting, for example, waltzes that could have come from the pen of Strauss.
Luisa Fernanda is an unabashedly political piece, and one must remember it was written in the early 1930s, when Spain was just a few years away from its devastating Civil War. Though the opera is set in the 19th century, the political issues are largely contemporary (for the 1930s, anyway), with revolutionaries warring with monarchists for the soul of a country. It's probably hard to see how, for example, Fascists warring Communists, as the Spanish Civil War turned out to do, could be seen in the same light, but my hunch is that is exactly what may have spurred Torroba on, however unconsciously.
However the real soul of this opera is, as it is in so many works, one of unrequited love and mismatched lovers. Domingo plays Vidal, one of the landed gentry who yearns after Luisa (Nancy Herrera), who nonetheless is in love with Javier (Jose Bros). The political aspect rears its ugly head when Javier turns out to be a revolutionary and Vidal a monarchist, and so the opera ping pongs back and forth between a fairly traditional love triangle and a more complicated analysis of late 19th century Spanish politics. It is, in fact, the exact same territory, morally at least, that Les Miserables mines--the ambitions of the "common man" running headlong into the demands of the State. If things are a bit less clear cut in Luisa Fernanda, they're no less compelling than they are in Hugo's magnum opus.
This is a very simply staged, yet highly effective, reading of what has become one of Torroba's best known works. Director Emilio Sagi presents us with an almost empty stage graced by a miniature model of Madrid. A black backdrop is redrawn several times with various rectangular configurations of white. The revolution itself plays out in shadow against an ecru scrim. It's a uniquely successful gambit that allows the opera's emotional content to remain front and center where it belongs. Jesus Lopez Cobos conducts the orchestra and chorus of Madrid's Teatro Real with a firm hand, coaxing the multicolored orchestrations and rhythmic nuances out of the players with ease and assurance.
Luisa Fernanda also benefits mightily from the presence of Domingo, who is graduating into these darker character roles with a grace that some may have not expected from a star who was something akin to a matinee idol for so many years. His languid tenor is starting to reveal the beautiful burnish of age, and Torroba's achingly gorgeous melodies are a perfect vehicle for him. The rest of cast follows suit in uniformly excellent vocal performances.
With its at least brief moments of spoken dialogue, and its uniformly symmetrical musical phrases, this is a great "beginner" opera for those who haven't yet taken the plunge. For opera lovers, this represents a really lovingly presented reading of one the greatest examples of zarzuela, and it's sure to be enjoyed by any lover of fine music and singing.
Luisa Fernanda's AVC 1.78:1 image is incredibly sharp and well defined, and, despite a lot of the opera being costumed and staged in shades of white, has no blooming and maintains admirable contrast and saturation.
Both the Spanish LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 mixes are excellent, though the 5.1 obviously offers much greater detail and separation. Strangely, the 2.0 seems to have more of a hall reverb effect applied to it, making it sound a little echo-ey. The orchestra and singers are all reproduced beautifully here, with superb balance and fidelity. Dynamic range is especially good on this BD, something that you'll notice with the many percussive effects Torroba uses. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German.
Aside from the typically excellent insert booklet essay (by director Sagi), the BD itself includes an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, and interviews with Domingo, Sagi and Cobos.
Luisa Fernanda deserves to be better known and appreciated. Hopefully this excellent BD performance will help foster that appreciation. Beautifully played and sung, and with a striking physical production, this is zarzuela at its finest. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet