Placido Domingo: Love in a hot climate

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The Independent Culture

At this stage in his astonishing career Placido Domingo can insist on doing more or less anything he wants to in an opera house - and he does. This year we've seen him at Covent Garden in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac, but he's also released an album of Italian love songs, and will later be conducting Manon, Madame Butterfly, Tosca and La Boheme in Los Angeles, Washington, Vienna and New York respectively, before ending in December with the title role in Tan Dun's new opera, The First Emperor. As his website proclaims, his motto is: 'If I rest, I rust.' Earlier this month he was in his native Madrid taking the leading role in a work called Luisa Fernanda. It is little known outside Spain as it belongs to a particular Iberian variant of operetta called zarzulea, whose heyday was the late 19th century. Mixing dialogue and lush lyrical music, it runs from low urban farce to sophisticated love stories. For Domingo the attachment is personal: both his parents were zarzuela singers (his mother was famous in the title role of Luisa, and his father sang Vidal, Domingo's role in this production). Domingo was born in Madrid, but moved aged eight when his parents sought greater opportunities in Mexico. Zarzuela is still popular in Spain and the wider Hispanic world, especially in its native Madrid where several theatres thrive on it, though the Spanish Civil War more or less marked the end of new works. Torroba's Luisa Fernanda from 1932 is one of the last masterpieces - at the last count chalking up more than 10,000 performances around the world. The production at the Teatro Real in Madrid was a top-of-the-range version, which first appeared 18 months ago at Washington Opera where Domingo is general director. The story is a love triangle set in 1868 Madrid when Spain was riven by the division between monarchists and republicans. The heroine Luisa is in love with her fiance Javier, a young officer, ambitious, but easily swayed by the attention of a flirtatious duchess. His neglect of Luisa allows Vidal, a middle-aged landowner from the country in search of a wife, the opportunity to press his suit. As the rebellion breaks out and street-fighting begins, Javier takes the side of Queen Isabella; Vidal, in hope of winning Luisa, that of the revolutionaries. Who will get the girl? In the attempt to convince the world that zarzuela should be better appreciated, there's unlikely to be a better advocate than this production and for me it certainly compares well with such staples of the repertoire as The Merry Widow: wonderful black and white costumes, good choreography strong direct staging by the leading Spanish producer Emilio Sagi. Vidal is a peach of a role for Domingo: his voice easily commands its baritone range and he dominates the action, convincingly heroic in voice and figure and still able to project a greying virility in the style of Sean Connery. Nancy Herrara as Luisa and Jose Bros as Javier gave fine support. The whole thing cracks along, with no longeurs, and is over in less than two hours. With its great tunes, but nothing too high or difficult, Luisa Fernanda would be a fine vehicle for Domingo to drive off into the sunset of retirement over the next decade or so, were he so minded - but of course he still has large ambitions. He has performances of both Parsifal and Siegmund scheduled for next year. This hardest-working of singers shows no sign of changing his motto.

Luisa Fernanda will be available on DVD from Opus Arte later this year. The next appearance of this production will be in Los Angeles next June.