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Has ever a singer entered the autumn of his career with the affable grace of Plácido Domingo? At 68, the Spanish tenor is lending incomparable (and sorely needed) lustre to this first zarzuela ever staged by the Los Angeles Opera, which Domingo runs when not minding the store at the Washington National Opera.

Federico Moreno Torroba’s 1932 work, an operetta in all but name, serves as climax to a west coast spring season that has already witnessed forays into lighter material by Lehár and Gershwin.

This project, a natural for a metropolis with an immense Hispanic population, is less a guilty pleasure than an innocent beguilement. The zarzuela format, musical passages interspersed with spoken dialogue, has never captivated America and this historical romance, which surrounds a love triangle with episodes of political turmoil during the reign of Isabella II, probably won’t win a host of admirers. Moreno Torroba’s fluent, conservative vocabulary seems utterly incapable of dealing with important themes and the score loses energy in its final pages.

Yet when Domingo, as a middle-aged landowner turned revolutionary, irradiates the stage with vocalism that glows like ancient amber, you can understand why zarzuela still survives in hospitable terrain. True, the part is written in baritone range and the singer favours the occasional transposition. But the ardour and style remain peerless.

Emilio Sagi’s production, on loan from Madrid’s Teatro Real, favours mild abstraction over local colour. Chairs, multiple curtains and a huge tree represent Madrid; lovely costumes in muted hues and evocative lighting do the rest. Sagi does
not propose characterisations as much as posturing, although Nuria Castejón’s ensemble dances are charming.

The title-role is seriously underwritten, but Yali-Marie Williams, the official “cover”, introduced a lyric soprano of considerable thrust and allure in quest of a credible character.

The other suitor for Luisa’s hand, the revolutionary Javier Moreno, barely registered in the tight, puny tenor of Antonió Gandia. Elena de la Merced brought a crafty mezzo to bear on an interloping duchess. Miguel Roa, a zarzuela expert from the old country, conducted with verve.


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To June 16

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