Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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June 12, 2007

Cast of Luisa Fernanda
Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera 2007

The Los Angeles Opera brought its 06/07 to a close (at least for me) Tuesday night with a fairly well-traveled and well-received production of Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. Of course, the work and production are new to LA, a town where more people have a command of Spanish than Italian, German, or French so in some ways it would seem appropriate to bring a zarzuela such as this out to the West Coast. On top of this, the production stars Placido Domingo as Vidal Hernando, and it must be said that hearing the master sing and sing so well at this point in his career is more than enough reason to catch one of the two remaining performances on Thursday and Saturday. But there are other reasons, too - like Yali-Marie Williams for instance. Making her LA Opera debut she has been filling in for an ill Maria Jose Montiel throughout virtually all of this run. She is a former Operalia winner, she sounds marvelous here and holds her own both against Domingo as well as Antonia Gandia as Javier. She is certainly more feisty than romantic, which does leave things a little cold at times in a work that relies heavily on believable romantic sentiment. It also relies heavily on a rather convoluted plot which involved not only the love triangle but a story of revolution and rebellion. And while having a silly or convoluted plot may not be a reason to dismiss a work out of hand, having the music of Verdi or Mozart may go a long way to covering over some of the weaker spots.

The other major contributor to the success of this performance is Emilio Sagi and his clever, sharp, and strikingly minimal set design. The period costumes are integrated into a black and white set with sheer curtains that is simple and to the point, but very effective. This was additionally surprising because of the absolutely god-awful Carmen he subjected us to here as recently as 2004. Which just goes to show why it is important not to judge someone by one production or staging alone. Conductor Miguel Roa and the orchestra sounded good and managed to keep the Puccini-esque score lively enough even when things seemed more disconnected on stage.

Still, though, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. What started off as one of the strongest season’s in recent memory for LA, with dynamite performances of La Traviata, Don Carlo, a Netrebko/Villazon Manon, and a fantastic Poppea, has devolved into a messy group of operettas over the last two months with a significantly awful Lofti Mansouri Merry Widow and the perennially underwhelming Porgy and Bess. Luisa Fernanda is certainly superior to these latter two entries, but it still seems like an afterthought. So the season ends not with a bang, but the proverbial whimper. However, this is opera and, as always, one has to focus on the good in an art form where there are so many elements that rarely are all the stars aligned.

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