Los Angeles, California – There was a “blackberry” experience at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre recently. No, thank goodness, it was not that kind of “Blackberry” but a kind of tasty “blackberry” experience by the always deliciously satisfying Pacific Lyric Association. They’ve been providing us with a wonderfully authentic and historically accurate opera form known as zarzuela since 2006. Zarza means “blackberry bramble” in Spanish, and rumor has it that zarzas surrounded an overgrown pavilion in El Prado Park, where the first outdoor performances of the genre was performed in 1658 for Spanish King Philip IV. Who knew? Although zarzuelas were created to entertain Spanish royalty in the mid-1600s, there is nothing elitist about this opera company and their audience-friendly performance of Luisa Fernanda, one of the most popular of the zarzuelas.
The old Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood is being lovingly put to use by the current owners, the Ricardo Montalban Foundation, and upon entering this theatre after so many years, it exuded its old charm and warmth. This performance of Luisa Fernanda –- Una Zarzuela/Spanish Opera –- began before it started with the sound of Antonia Carlos Jobim being softly strummed from the interior foyer. “Watch What Happens” was the perfect song to be playing as the townsfolk of Luisa Fernanda, in full costume, gracefully took turns dancing for one another and those of us in the audience as we were shown to our seats.
It was guilelessly charming and imparted its warmth and openness to the audience. We were involved as their friends, and the curtain hadn’t even gone up. We were greeted cordially and given a little back-history of what we were there to see: a genuine zarzuela — an almost lost art-form that flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s.
It’s not surprising that its modern heyday was during, shall we say, political strife in Spain leading to the Spanish Civil War which lasted from 1936 to 1939. Written in 1932, Luisa Fernanda is about another uprising in 1868 against Queen Isabella II of Spain. “Unlike opera, zarzuelas are a form of populist entertainment,” explained Pacific Lyric Association artistic director, Madrid-born Carlos Oliva, so this one did double duty. Written by Frederico Moreno Torroba in 1932, this is one of the last of the great zarzuelas. Spanish Civil War brought a decline of the genre, and after the war, its extinction was almost total. There were no new authors in the genre, and the compositions were not renovated. There were no significant new works created since the 1950s; existing zarzuela is difficult and expensive to mount, and many classics have been performed only sporadically, by seasons, during only a few days. Interest has been renewed since the late 1970s, as zarzuela again found favor in Spain, primarily with young people, who enjoyed the lyrical music and the theatrical spectacle. Plácido Domingo has helped renew this interest on a personal level, since his parents were themselves zarzuela singers, and he grew up working in their touring company in Mexico. Zarzuela inspired him to pursue a singing career. This night, it was an even more moving piece of theatre since the son of composer Torroba had travelled from Spain to conduct these four performances of his father’s work.
Although some consider this an early form of musical theatre, I found it to be more aligned to an opera with dialogue and all that implies. The entire performance required the involvement of the audience as part of the entertainment by our very closeness to the actual stage and by the fact that there was no amplification for either the singers or the orchestra. Just as we were close enough to see every stitch in every costume, every note was right there for our examination; whether perfectly executed or not was not important because of the intensity and commitment of the performers.
Luisa Fernanda is a heart-wrenching love story told amid political unrest yet not without with delightful comic relief and stirring music. As a story of passion, politics and politesse, the opera has one of these going at all times on stage. There is a certain rustic quality that’s inherent in this production, from the serenading in the foyer to the relationships on stage and the setting; it must be that “populist” thing: a political party that seeks to represent the interests of farmers and laborers. There is the obligatory opening scene with the townsfolk talking amongst themselves and establishing who they are and the tone and mood of what is to come. (I paid strict attention to this since I hadn’t paid attention earlier when the gentleman on stage had told us there were to be supertitles in English and I was valiantly trying to follow in Spanish… I finally noticed them after a bit.)
For passion, we have political passion and the passion of our beautiful, pure, noble, devoutly religious, valiant heroine Luisa. There is, of course, the intrigue and conflict between her two suitors, besides being the usual “dueling tenors.” Javier, Luisa’s nonchalant fiancé, is deeply involved politically; and Vidal is the wealthy landowner in town looking for a wife who just could be Luisa if she were not engaged and, more than that, not deeply in love with Javier who’s too busy “jousting with windmills.”
Of course, there is the wealthy, aristocratic town vixen, Carolina, who artfully arranges a charity collection outside the Church. It’s there, when things are going slow, that Carolina auctions herself off as a dancing partner to the highest bidder. Well, we know it’s not going to be the soldier Javier. This is where the politesse is in full bloom.
Throughout, we have had the comic relief of young, sincere yet clueless political zealot Anibal who is a sort of go-between/messenger who always seems to smooth over bruised feelings between everyone. Javier is jealous that Luisa resignedly prefers Vidal; Vidal adores Luisa; Carolina wants whomever she can get. I said she was a vixen.
After all this, the men go to war and Anibal returns, staggering onstage wounded, and gives a report: Vidal is heroic beyond belief, Javier has staged a counter attack for the monarchists, and Luisa and Carolina have a confrontation involving Javier’s politics. Javier is arrested only to be saved by Vidal and his men. Javier and Carolina embrace and leave together, and Vidal and Luisa plan their wedding which, of course, is not to be.
The final act is predictable, but who cares? It’s all in the performance of the actors, and the Pacific Lyric Association keeps the passions burning to the very end. Of course, Javier returns, Carolina has been exiled to Portugal, Anibal sneaks Javier in to see Luisa one last time, and Vidal realizes finally that it will never work and wistfully gives them his blessing.
Here’s the behind-the-scenes information that certainly contributes to the special quality of this performance. In real life, besides having Torroba’s son, Federico Moreno-Torroba Larregla conducting his father’s opera, our director, Gabriel Oliva, is not only our Anibal but the real life son of our Luisa (Teresa Hughes-Oliva) and Vidal (Carlos Oliva), who is also the Executive Artistic Director. With the passion and talent that lies within these familial confines and who the Familia de Olivas invite to be part of their extended family, there is only one thing to be said: El amor lo puede todo y Viva Zarzuela!