On March 9, Toronto Operetta Theatre gave the Canadian premiere of Luisa Fernanda, a zarzuela from 1932 by Spanish composer Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982).  This was the fourth zarzuela, a Spanish form of operetta, that TOT has presented and it was so appealing and elicited such audience enthusiasm one hopes there will be more to come.  It was a feast of first-class music-making from beginning to end.

The action is set in Madrid in 1868 during a republican insurrection against the regime of Queen Isabel II.  Javier (Edgar Ernesto Ramirez), fiancé of Luisa Fernanda (Michèle Bogdanowicz), has just been made a colonel and has been neglecting her.  Worse, he has been accompanying the Duchess Carolina (Miriam Khalil) about town.  When Luisa sees this she finally pays attention to the elderly, wealthy landowner Don Vidal (Guillermo Silva-Marin), who has fallen in love with her.  When the insurrection grows to revolution Javier is on the monarchist side while Don Vidal joins the anti-monarchist side where Luisa’s sympathies lie.

Luisa Fernanda contradicts preconceptions about operetta derived from other models.  It is not lightly satirical like Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan, but overtly critical of the monarchy and passionate in its plea for liberty, especially in the rousing chorus “¡Viva la libertad!” that opens Act 2.  Javier, the lead tenor, seems like a cad through most of the action and Don Vidal is not the familiar comic aged lover but in many ways becomes the emotional centre of the piece.

Musically, while the use of folk song and country dances pull the work in the direction of operetta, the arias for the four principals have the difficulty and weight of opera.  Torroba’s music seems positioned exactly halfway between the nationalist school of Manuel de Falla and the verismo of Puccini, flavoured with contemporary Viennese chromaticism when characters express distress.  It’s a rich musical language and proves why TOT’s inclusion of zarzuela is so important.  Not only does it explore an unjustly neglected realm of music theatre but it expands our notion of what operetta is.
Vocally, the revelation of the evening was Ramírez, a true Italianate tenor with endless lung-power and a heroic tone.  His triumphant entrance aria, “De este apacible rincón de Madrid,” drew such thunderous applause and bravos Ramírez should have a bright future ahead of him.  At the end, he was able to colour his voice so delicately that his contrition seemed completely believable.  Bogdanowicz’s sparkling soprano conveyed the vitality and youth of the title character, while Khalil’s silken tone captured the Duchess’s elegance and cunning.  It was a real pleasure to see Silva-Marin sing a major role on stage again, his voice full of power and clarity with ringing top notes.  He expressed an underlying sadness even in Don Vidal’s happiest moments that seemed to reflect the overall tone of the entire piece.  He, too, was greeted with volleys of bravos especially after his soaring, passionate “Lucha la fe por el triunfo,” when Don Vidal admits he fights only for Luisa’s sake.

The 12-member TOT gave a spirited account of the score under conductor José Hernández and the TOT chorus sang with fervour and precision.  The choral “Parasol Mazurka” was certainly one of the show’s many highlights.  The piece was sung in Spanish with dialogue in English making this TOT’s first use of surtitles.  Given the Spanish I heard spoken all around me, this was exactly the right choice.  One sensed that the dialogue had been radically abridged, but that served only to foreground the music.  My main regret was that the short run would prevent me from seeing the show again.  ¡Muchas gracias! to TOT for a wonderful evening.  I look forward to its next zarzuela.  For more information, visit www.torontooperetta.com.

1) 1891-1982: Not a typo--he lived a long life.

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