Vidal Hernando – Plácido Domingo; Luisa Fernanda
– Nancy Herrera; Duquesa Carolina – Mariola Cantarero; Javier
Moreno – José Bros; Mariana – Raquel Pierotti; Aníbal
– Javier Ferrer; Rosita – Sabina Puértolas; Don Luis Nogales
– Federico Gallar; El Saboyano – Ángel Rodríguez;
Vendedor – Juan Antonio Sanabria; Vendedora de cocos – Montserrat
Muñumel; Bizco Porras – David Rubiera; Don Lucas – Tomeu
Bibiloni; Don Florito Fernández – José Antonio Ferrer;
Pollo primero – Miguel Borrallo; Pollo segundo – Julio Cendal; Un
hombre del pueblo – José Manuel Cardama; Un capitán –
Juan Navarro; Un vareador – Joseba Pinela. Emilio Sagi (director /
designer); Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid; Jordi Casas Bayer
(chorus director); Jesús López Cobos (conductor)
reviewed by Andrew Lamb
The advent of DVD has added a whole set of dimensions to the domestic enjoyment of opera. A CD recording could, to all intents and purposes, have been made almost anywhere. With a DVD recording, however, we not only view the action from our arm-chairs but savour the theatre, the audience and whole local environment in which the staging is taking place. Luisa Fernanda is a zarzuela whose music I have treasured for almost half a century. Thus the prospect of being transported from poverty-stricken British operatic “stagings” – so often bereft of costumes, and making do with chairs as props and scenery – to a real (and, indeed, Real) Spanish staging was an exciting one.
So much for expectations! The progress of this Emilio Sagi production – from Milan in 2003, via Washington in 2004 – has been charted in the pages of Opera and in reports on this website from Carlos Carbonell and Christopher Webber. However, they had prepared me less than fully for what I was to witness. (Nor, indeed, can one expect prospective purchasers to be so prepared.) What we get is a production pared down to the virtual total exclusion of dialogue, and with hardly more in the way of scenery, period costumes and props than any of the impoverished fringe productions in London. There is no pretence at depicting the buildings of San Javier Square or the Duchess’s balcony in Act 1, the colourful street-trading in the Paseo de la Florida in Act 2, or the full range of costumes of the era of Isabel II. The first two ( Madrid) acts are staged entirely in black and white, enhanced by brilliant lighting.
A note tucked away in the booklet gives the game away: “This production, made by Emilio Sagi for the Teatro Real, Madrid, was based on his earlier staging for a concert performance … at La Scala, Milan….” Come again?! I thought that concert performances were a way of presenting works where resources for a full stage production were not available, rather than an end in itself! Shortage of resources is certainly not the criterion here. Now, it seems, the operatic concert performance is an end in itself!
I’m unclear as to the precise nature of the Milan production that Sagi has since developed. However, it’s easy enough to understand the use of a semi-staged performance, with heavily cut dialogue, to introduce to Italian audiences a work in Spanish with which they are totally unfamiliar. But how did things progress then? How could Sagi use hundreds of thousands of Spanish euros adapting his concept for the Teatro Real, without reinstating dialogue or bothering with scenery, props or period costumes?
What he has done is to deck out a huge cast in sumptuous black and white costumes, with brilliant lighting effects, and props that are no common-or-garden chairs but handsomely equipped specimens beautifully painted in brilliant white. Sagi has also acquired what looks like a model city with the letters “M A D R I D” sticking out of it. Plonked at the front of the stage, it is often used during Acts 1 and 2 as a barrier between camera and stage to obscure what may be going on on-stage. For Act 3 the letters are removed, the model covered over, and miniature trees placed on top to depict the Extremaduran setting. The further addition of a large tree centre-stage, and coloured lighting to create “a bright golden haze on the meadow”, does rather destroy consistency of concept with Acts 1 and 2.
No doubt for citizens of Madrid for whom productions of Luisa Fernanda may be almost as commonplace as flower-bedecked squares, and celebrations of San Antonio in the Paseo de la Florida, a “production” in black and white without such distractions as dialogue, scenery and colour presents a welcome novelty. Indeed, Sagi says as much in the accompanying interview. And I have to admit that – except for the over-excessive pruning of dialogue that creates far too many sudden entrances and exits – it works extremely well on its own terms. On those terms my only quibble with the complimentary remarks of Carlos Carbonell and Christopher Webber is to say that, pace the latter, the result is most definitely not operetta.
Certainly it looks absolutely glorious. Above all the Mazurka of the Parasols – one number in which one might expect colour to create particular effect – is quite brilliantly done, ending in a glorious swirl of brilliant white parasols. Nor can I have any quarrel with the reduction of the original three acts to two, with the interval occurring after the frivolities of the Paseo de la Florida and before early-morning shells announce the gathering of rebels in the Calle de Toledo. The actual performance too is – with one major qualification – first-rate. As with so many stage scores, Luisa Fernanda is so much more than the sum of its parts, and its oft-played highlights so much more effective in the context of the harsher music of the struggle between the monarchists and republicans. Jesús López Cobos directs huge forces with fire and passion mingled with tenderness, and the tensions between the characters are admirably captured as they man the barricades – or at any rate, in this staging, as they man the chairs.
Of the four principals, three go a long way towards forming a dream cast. Nancy Herrera not only sings the notes beautifully but presents a powerful portrayal of conflicting emotions. As for her two suitors, no more effective use could surely have been made of two leading singers – the seasoned veteran and the young pretender in a single cast. In depicting the dashing young suitor, José Bros produces thrilling sounds with seemingly little effort. His is a stage presence to die for! Domingo, too, is a revelation – so much more effective in his forthright assumption of the baritonal role of Vidal than with the pinched tones he sometimes produces in portraying a youthful tenor romantic lead. The major disappointment among the leading characters is Mariola Cantarero, whose effort-full and ill-focused singing seriously detracts from enjoyment of the ‘Caballero del alto plumero’ duet.
For the “visitor” to zarzuela, though, is it not a great shame to present something so far removed from the work’s conception? Is it not another failure to seize the opportunity to convey to outsiders the real essence of zarzuela? For anyone watching with DVD subtitles, moreover, the failure is compounded by the bizarre insistence on presenting those subtitles in brilliant white against the brilliant white background. Brilliant indeed!
Impressive as the performance is, then, will the DVD serve for repeated viewing? Well, why would it? After all, if I want to enjoy the de luxe sounds of this Teatro Real production but have to consult a booklet to follow the action and text, I might just as well listen to the audio version. If I want to see Luisa Fernanda staged, am I not better served – whatever its shortcomings – by the Teatro Calderón video? “Old fuddy-duddy!” do I hear you say? No doubt I am. After all, I was brought up at a time when Hans Andersen’s Emperor’s New Clothes was a children’s cautionary tale about the perils of pretence and pretentiousness. Nowadays it seems also to be a theatre director’s vade mecum.
© Andrew Lamb 2007