The curtain rose on the opening of the Royal Opera House Muscat’s 8th Season to reveal a vision of Spain in “Gala Zarzuela” on Thursday evening. The most famous living tenor in the world, Placido Domingo, presented individual numbers from this quintessentially Spanish form of operetta to open the 2018/19 season. Together with the acclaimed Antonio Gades Dance Company and Orchestra Fondazione Arena di Verona, the audience was transported in a unique kaleidoscope of Spanish vignettes to the passionate world of flamenco, gypsies, bullfights and desperate love affairs. This deliciously seductive production was first shown at the Zarzuela Theatre in Madrid and in Verona earlier this year, and a helpful, two-line synopsis of each song was shown on screens between numbers.
The opening piece could not have been more appropriate or desired: the Antonio Gades Company presented a synchronised Flamenco ensemble, the seven women dressed in classical white dresses and the gentlemen in stylistic waistcoats, stomping and clicking their fiercely proud heels through Gimenez’ compelling, “Intermedio” in a veritable concerto for castanets. This was danced against a projection of merging Spanish landscapes using the finest multi-media techniques, which illustrated the context without the need for complicated scenery or backdrops.
It segued seamlessly into the moment most people were eagerly anticipating; the entrance of the grand singer himself – now singing mostly baritone roles – Placido Domingo, in “Quiero Desterrar”. The quality and power of Domingo’s considerable vocal range beguiled and enchanted listeners in this song of unrequited love.
Even though the orchestra played from the pit rather than on stage it still posed some challenges for the soloists, especially in their lower ranges. The brass and percussion in the renowned Orchestra Fondazione Arena di Verona provided wonderful soundscapes from the Hispanic dance and Zarzuela scores, all under the experienced baton of Spanish conductor, Jordi Bernàcer.
Domingo brought two award-winning singers with him to complement his favourite Zarzuelas. The versatile Puerto Rican soprano, Ana Maria Martinez, gave a moving performance of Sorozabal’s “No Corte Mas Que Una Rosa” from his 1934, ‘La Del Manojo De Rosas’ against a blood-red sunset, intriguingly supported by four locally recruited child-extras.
Each number was backed by changing projections of seascapes, night-skies, picturesque Spanish villages, moons in various stages of waxing, or gardens with Moorish architecture, to form a cohesive narrative to the show. Broken picture frames were dropped to allow half-portraits or fragmented scenes of historical significance to provide visual aids. While these may have helped some audience members to focus on the plot, more habitual concert-goers found the constantly changing pictures a distraction from the performance. Surely Placido Domingo needs no help in engaging his audience!
The second guest, Mexican tenor, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, performed the tricky Jota number, “Te Quiero, Morena” by Jose Serrano with all the passion and heartfelt devotion one would expect, and immediately won the hearts of his audience. A poignant moment was to follow in the duet, “No Cantes Mas La Africana” (Don’t sing any more, African girl) from Caballero’s ‘El Duo De La Africana’. It was a dramatic highlight of the first half, with its tender pathos and superb pairing of Domingo with Martinez’ radiant voice.
The orchestra had a chance to shine in an extract from Enrique Granados’ beloved 1915, ‘Goyescas’. The ‘Cello solo was beautifully executed by Alexander Zymbrovsky, but curiously, a young extra was directed to walk across the stage with a balloon and let it float up, helium-like, to suggest an unintended programme!
The second dance by the Gades Company under its Artistic Director, Stella Arauzo, was from ‘La Leyenda del Beso’ by Soutullo and Vert, a brilliant portrayal of authentic Spanish culture with some stunning virtuoso dancing, set in a gypsy mountain hideout. It was followed by a charming duet from the same show, allowing the guest soloists to blend their voices while the dancers became drunken clientele in the taverna where it plays.
The first half closed with one of Placido Domingo’s signature roles, “Non Puede Ser” from Sorozabal’s 1936, ‘La Tabernera del Puerto’. It reached heights of intense vocal timbre and passion in a momentous climax to part one. Domingo grew up with the Zarzuela tradition and is most comfortable in the genre. He was clearly in his element throughout, and his apparent effortlessness belied his considerable years. He was young, coquettish, amusing, suave yet passionate throughout the evening and it was a privilege to experience this eminent singer so much at home within his chosen repertoire.
Part two opened with a vibrant ‘Farruca’ dance from Manuel de Falla’s 1919, ‘Three Cornered Hat’, featuring a thrilling solo from guest flamenco dancer, Jose Huertas, his feet hammering rhythmically on the improvised stage. Set mostly in a street market, the dancers cleverly became villagers behind the soloists in scenes from Torroba’s 1932, ‘Luisa Fernanda’. Domingo’s powerful declaration, “Luce La Fe Por El Triunfo” gained a rousing applause for its patriotic sentiment, against evolving paintings of battle scenes.
The final dance performance was beautifully interpreted in front of projections of unfolding coloured fans, while the Finale brought the soloists together in a trio from Moreno’s famous 1917, ‘El Gato Montes’. It was a dramatic end in period costumes, except there remained several unprogrammed curtain calls: Placido Domingo sang to his partner – a principal female dancer with twisting Flamenco movement – in Utreras’ “Ojos Verdes” (green eyes) to rapturous acclaim, followed by Ms Martinez in what must be described as a zarzuelero ‘patter song’. He concluded with Torroba’s lush romanza, ‘Maravilla’. The standing ovation was long and loud, and left the impression that Placido Domingo’s fourth appearance at ROHM in February, as Germont in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, may well be sold out long in advance.