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Music Review : Zarzuela Zealotry With Domingo and Friends


Placido Domingo isn't like the other tenorissimo. You know, the portly one who waves a small white tablecloth while he sings and closes his blissful eyes while he basks in push-button ovations.

When Domingo comes to Southern California, he doesn't just blast sweet sounds at the masses through microphones in sports stadiums and super-circus amphitheaters. He also appears, bless him, in bona fide, legitimate, human-scale halls.

The Music Center Opera, which Domingo now serves as artistic adviser and (less impressively) as principal guest-conductor, will present him in five performances of "Otello" this May. Thursday night, between performances of "Herodiade" in San Francisco, he moved portions of our opera company to Pasadena Civic Auditorium for a festive concert of Spanish music, most of it related to the zarzuela genre he so obviously adores.

This was not a night for musical or intellectual profundity. It wasn't much of a night for vocal finesse or expressive introspection. But it was a terrific night for gutsy extroversion enhanced, as needed, by wit, charm, high spirits and, perhaps most important, stylistic conviction.

Although Domingo sang with tireless ringing fervor and saucy bravado, too, he didn't triumph alone. He brought along a couple of distinguished and enlightened friends--Chilean soprano Veronica Villaroel and Spanish conductor Miguel Roa, both of whom had helped him turn Manuel Penella's "El Gato Montes" into a surprise hit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last January.

Villaroel may have been a rather pallid Violetta and a distinctly unidiomatic Marguerite at the Music Center, but here she proved, again, that she can sing Spanish music with irresistible verve and insinuating humor, not to mention dignified pathos. Roa, director of the Teatro Lirico Nacional de la Zarzuela in Madrid, distinguished himself as a maestro equally authoritative and mischievous in the repertory at hand. It's a nice combination of virtues.

The zarzuela--technically a Spanish drama that fuses singing, dancing and spoken dialogue--finds its roots in the court of Philip IV, circa 1640. The version sampled on this occasion, however, is a 20th-Century evolution, something akin to a heavyweight operetta with nationalist accents and/or folkloric overtones.

The oldest entry on the Pasadena agenda was the agitated prelude to "Pan y Toros," written by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri in 1864. That was the exception to the temporal rule. Most of the arias and duets on display dated back to the 1920s and 1930s, a period that apparently valued verismo theatrics, rhythmic propulsion, orchestral simplicity and, above all, pretty tunes. The newest item on the program, an ardent aria from Federico Moreno Torroba's "Maravilla," was written in 1941 but probably sounded comfortably old-fashioned even then.

Domingo and Villaroel, alone and together, sang their generous hearts out in declarations of love (requited and not) and apostrophes to nature, in religious ecstasies and colorful rituals, in tones of intimate flirtation and heroic desperation, even in a comic flight or two. The music of Penella, Federico Moreno Torroba, Jeronimo Gimenez, Jacinto Guerrero, Federico Chueca, Pablo Luna, Reveriano Soutullo and Juan Vert employed a more limited, more primitive emotive scale than the texts may have implied. Still, it was always engaging, always direct, always effective on its own neatly defined terms.

For most of his admirers (who had paid up to $100 per ticket, not including post-concert din-din), Domingo's finest moment seemed to come in the unrelenting passion of "Adios, dijiste, se va mi vida" from Moreno Torroba's "Maravilla." This listener was even more impressed by the all-too-rare mezza-voce tones with which he caressed "Bella enamorada" from Soutullo's "El Ultimo Romantico."

Villaroel began her portion of the evening with an encore of sorts, a haunting, lustrous performance of Solea's aria from "El Gato Montes." She ended with a legitimate encore in which she actually managed to project the itchy allure of Gimenez's "Tarantula" without being too cute.

Roa and the so-called Music Center Opera Orchestra provided rather loud yet appreciative support throughout.


Incidental intelligence:

* While the Los Angeles Philharmonic was burning Debussy and Lutoslawski under Esa-Pekka Salonen a few miles away at the Pavilion, Sidney Weiss, the inexplicably-former Philharmonic concertmaster, was fiddling zarzuelas in Pasadena.

* The ridiculously inadequate program booklet for Domingo and friends offered no annotations, no Spanish texts, no synopses, no first names for composers, no dates of composition, and no indication of who was singing what.

* Augustin Lara's "Granada" (1932) served as the fourth and final encore. It came after many vociferous suggestions from the audience, and much silly pantomime on the stage in which Domingo pretended to be improvising the predetermined choices. Shades of the "Three Tenors" show.

* The concert was dedicated to Pepita Embil, Domingo's mother and a former zarzuela star in Mexico, who died earlier this year.

* Domingo and Villaroel enjoyed a huge success last June in Carlos Gomes' "Il Guarany" as staged by Werner Herzog in Bonn. Hint. Hint.

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