By Elizabeth H. Onodera
Photo credit: Cory Weaver / LA Opera
El Gato Montés: The Wildcat is a collaboration of artists from the Americas and Spain and sizzles with excitement from start to finish with its love triangle story using a Spanish libretto.
Composed by Manuel Penella, El Gato premiered in Madrid, 1916 to major accolades, and is considered a masterpiece of popular Spanish lyrical theater called Zarzuela.
At the time, Penella’s was considered unorthodox in Spanish zarzuela theater for not having spoken dialogue; the composer was aiming to create an international opera using Spanish characters, but with operatic and classical musical concepts such as arias and leitmotifs.
El Gato has been mostly dormant, except for the popularity of Penella’s pasodoble - a march played in El Gato to represent an offstage bullfight. Ballroom aficionados and TV fans of “Dancing With the Stars” are well acquainted with this tune, but may not be aware Penella was the composer.
Fortunately, El Gato was recently unearthed by Plácido Domingo who grew up in the Zarzuela world of Spanish theater having been born to parents both of considerable renown as Zarzuela artists. Maestro Domingo was also impressed with a production of El Gato he saw at Teatro de la Zarzuela and sought to bring it to the Los Angeles Opera for its 2018-2019 season.
Previously performed in 1994, this LAO revival of El Gato Montés has assembled an impressive cast: In his 151st career role, Maestro Domingo plays the title role of Juanillo, an outlaw known by the nickname “El Gato” (the “wildcat”). Belying his septuagenarian age, Mr. Domingo still exudes a heart throb’s presence while displaying his amazing singing abilities - he tackled the challenging registers and complex Moorish-melody infused baritone lines with seeming ease as if nimbly doing glissades on piano keys - truly a marvel of a performance.
He is joined by soprano Ana Maria Martinez as Solea, the beautiful woman who was a childhood friend of Juanillo/El Gato who grew up to become his beloved. Composer Penella’s use of challenging registers and having the singer’s melodies appear to clash with the orchestra’s to create dramatic tension is particularly evident and Ms. Martinez brilliantly shines in her character’s development as a meek young girl in the first act to a brave woman at the end — her arias are almost Wagnerian displaying a spiritual victory of her character, Solea.
Rounding out the trio is Mexican tenor, Arturo Chacon-Cruz as the dashingly handsome bullfighter Rafael Ruiz, the rival for Solea’s love and devotion. Last seen in LAO’s Macbeth and last year’s Rigoletto as Duke of Mantua, his expertise in Italian opera as well as Zarzuela songs is on superb display. Penella was influenced by Italian operas and Matador Ruiz’s final scene and aria was Puccini-esque in tragic intensity. At the performance I attended, cheers of bravo were heard after arias sung by Cruz. His designation as an honoree of this year’s Plácido Domingo Award is well deserved for Cruz’s dramatic, passionate and sensitive portrayals both here and in other productions.
Zarzuela Spanish lyrical theater is typically comprised of humorous and dramatic characters and sketches and rest of the cast is equally excellent as the leads. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera appears as the Fortune Teller, bass Ruben Amoretti as Padre Anton, and contralto Sharmay Musacchio as Frasquita. Also featured are three members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program: baritone Juan Carlos Heredia as Hormigón, baritone Michael J. Hawk as Caireles and mezzo-soprano Niru Liu as the Young Shepherd. Baritone Daniel Armstrong, an alumnus performs the role of Pezuño.
This new LAO production enlists the talents of an international creative team — Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer leads a production directed by Jorge Torres who both deftly bring El Gato to a Wagnerian climax. The scenery and the lighting designed by Francisco Leal and the costumes designed by Pedro Moreno evoke the passion and colors of Southern Spain as well as the surreal sensualism one associates with Spanish art and film. The choreography is by flamenco greats, Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega. Grant Gershon is the director of the LA Opera Chorus, and the production also features members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, led by its artistic director, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz.
The production notes give a plot summary according to the Madrid version of the work, but Maestro Domingo made slight revisions to the lead characters’ ending fates. Without giving away any major spoilers, Mr. Domingo’s changes, while slight, are in keeping with the main character El Gato/Wild Cat’s destiny, and shows how Plácido Domingo is very much in control of the destiny of L.A. Opera. How fortune we are!
LA Opera goers sometimes express hesitation in seeing modern pieces, but despite the Spanish elements of lyrics, characters, settings and costume design it’s an operatic gem not to be missed.
One more performance on May 19 2:00pm. For tickets, go to laopera.com
Elizabeth H. Onodera is a native San Franciscan. A translator and a researcher, she also writes about food and culture in various social media outlets as ‘foodshutterbug’.