Manuel Penella Moreno's "El Gato Montes" (The Wildcat), taped during a live performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by Los Angeles Music Center Opera, works in some ways even better on the small screen than it did in the theater.
The wide and shallow sets, imported from the Teatro Lirico Nacional la Zarzuela in Madrid, tended to make the dramatic action and confrontations look diffuse in real life. Here, however, they are remarkably concentrated by Gary Halvorson's close-ups and tight framing shots, although it does take a while for his nervous camera work to settle down.
The biggest worry--how the bullfight sequences originally projected onto an onstage scrim would look on the small screen--proves unwarranted. The projections work just fine, even if they do allow a too-early glimpse of the torero hero Rafael (Placido Domingo) getting ready to pull down the red curtain that signals his death by a bull's goring.
Overall, Domingo emerges a hotblooded, intense and even conflicted character, and his voice blossoms with bright ardor.
As Solea, the woman caught in the love triangle between Rafael and Juanillo (the "wildcat"), Veronica Villarroel projects anguish with nuance and clarity, while her big, dark, sometimes rough-edged, soprano soars.
Even Justino Diaz, despite obvious vocal wear and tear, evokes sympathy as Juanillo during his final vigil over Solea's body.
The remainder of the familiar cast enacts their responsibilities strongly. Emilio Sagi directs knowingly. Miguel Roa conducts with authority, and the Music Center Opera Orchestra responds boldly.
The structural problems in the work remain problematic, however. The first act is disproportionately long. None of the three main characters survive the opera, and two of them are dead before the final scene. Rafael gets only a short outburst when he dies. Solea dies of grief during the intermission without even the dignity of a parting aria. Juanillo's death, at least, comes at a dramatic moment. But resolution of the tangled emotional conflicts remains elusive.
* "El Gato Montes" screens as part of the "Great Performances" series at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28. The performance will be simulcast on KUSC-FM (91.5).