By Cathy Fuller

April 18

The second half of the 19th century is considered in Spain to be the golden age of the Zarzuela. It's Spanish operetta, and it includes a mixture of things - sophisticated ensembles and arias mixed in with dialogue, popular songs and comic characters.

On Saturday in Madrid, we assembled our Learning Tour group and headed to the Teatro de la Zarzuela (left) for a performance of Federico Moreno Torroba's "Luisa Fernanda". It was Placido Domingo who helped to bring a particular fame to this piece. His parents both sang in it, and he was responsible for a performance at the White House.

The operetta takes place during the reign of Queen Isabella the Second, when Royalists and Revolutionaries were beginning to do battle. It premiered in 1932. Luisa Fernanda is torn between two men: the soldier and the landowner, and Torroba wrote a sumptuous score full of memorable tunes. In fact, the woman sitting next to me couldn't stop singing along (in a hushed-yet-exuberant way).

The sets were brilliant, especially given that the theater has had to reduce its budget. Vertical panels featured illuminated projections that presented appealing, blurry sketches of the foreground and the landscape. At one point, during a particularly beautiful duet, a gorgeous collection of dark and rounded Spanish trees created a vast sense of open space. As the two sang, the trees would travel gently closer and then recede, as if to underscore the psychology of the action. And as the scene unfolded, the characters were plunged into a deep and starry night.

The projections were always subtly moving - leaves sparkling, laundry blowing, silhouettes devleoping in windows - and the whole thing had far more life than the usual paralyzed props could ever provide. I loved it.

The Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid is the resident orchestra at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. Their new Music Director is a young Spanish conductor named Cristóbal Soler. We were all very impressed by the orchestra's energy and sound. And especially their spot-on ability to play with the singers. So I knocked on the conductor's dressing room door after the performance to ask about what it takes for an orchestra and conductor to hold a Zarzuela together:

Interview wtih conductor Cristobal Soler

Next time, I'll share some real extremes with you:  Flamenco and Bach's Saint John Passion.

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