Plácido Domingo has worn many hats in the opera scene. He has conducted and been the general and artistic director of several companies, including the LA Opera. But his greatest accomplishment is that of a stage performer, in almost his eighth decade of showmanship, nearing 4,000 performances, and now starring in LA Opera’s 2019 production of “El Gato Montés” or “The Wildcat” (through May 19th) – not as the young-blooded bullfighter, Rafael, like he did in 1994 as a tenor, but the grizzled bandit, Juanillo, the titular character, who has an experiential assuredness that only Domingo could bring. Without question, the role of “The Wildcat” is another feather in the legend’s hat.
The 103-year-old opera, by composer and librettist Manuel Penella, falls within the Spanish zarzuela operatic genre in which melodramatic words are spliced with songs and the occasional dance interlude (in “El Gato Montés,” it’s the flamenco and Pasodoble). The love-triangle story set in Andalusia and Seville, Spain, pits fearless youth against aged wisdom, present passion against a bygone flame, for the prize of the beautiful Soleá (Ana María Martínez). She is in love with the thrilling bullfighter, Rafael Ruiz (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), who has returned from a career highlight to celebrate and declare his undying adoration. However, Soleá’s former (and older) lover and currently an exiled fugitive of justice (for killing a man in her name), Juanillo (Domingo), has returned to lay claim to the love that is his and issue an ultimatum to Rafael. Of course, a pressing conflict is born of this, as supporting characters, including Rafael’s mother, Frasquita (Sharmay Musacchio), his priest, Padre Anton (Rubén Amoretti), his bullfighting comrade, Hormigón (Juan Carlos Heredia), Juanillo’s friend, Pezuño (Daniel Armstrong), as well as a percipient fortune teller (Nancy Fabiola Herrera), among others, participate in the lead-up and aftermath of this drama.
Jorge Torres’ stage direction cogently illuminates the contrast between the moods in “El Gato Montés.” For much of the Teatro Lirico Nacional la Zarzuela show there’s a seeming warmth that then takes a turn for something much more volatile but one that is expected all the same within the thread of the escalating narrative. It is quality storytelling that builds toward its edge-of-your-seat, rousing conclusion. Similarly, Penella’s music, actualized brilliantly by conductor Jordi Bernàcer and his formidable orchestra, accents the transition from a peaceful splendor to a disquietingly loud ambiance that grabs the veritable bull by the horns with melodies and tempos that cement the dramatic import. The appropriately simple cobblestone-step scenery and lighting by Francisco Leal alternates between being well-lit and forebodingly shaded, hinting at an emotionally charged climax.
In addition, the costumes by Pedro Moreno fit the occasion – from being humbly attractive (Soleá’s magenta dress), to weathered (Juanillo’s tattered brown coat and boots) and extravagant (Rafael’s ornate black bullfighting ensemble). Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega’s choreography captures the realism inside the bullfighting ring (accentuated by a scrim) with the characteristically Spanish Pasodoble sequence and the folkloric exhibition of the flamenco. There’s an ebullience to the physical expressions that are sustained beyond the calamity in the opera.
For Plácido Domingo, this is both a homecoming and a test of his versatility – which he passes with flying colors. On one hand, the “El Gato Montés” opera is a reminder that this craft runs in his blood, as far back as his own parents whose zarzuela company regularly produced it. And yet, his 151st portrayal is a testament to how far Domingo has come as one of The Three Tenors to become a striking baritone. His salvation-exempted Wildcat is as fierce as he is a tragic figure, fortified by layers of temerity, suffering, and a nothing-to-lose mentality. At 78, Domingo himself has nothing to lose and nothing to prove, but he keeps winning and bowling over audiences and peers alike.
Ana María Martínez’s Soleá is an engaging enchantress, not due to any manipulative streak, but as a consequence of the two men who vie for her affections. Soleá’s agonizingly romantic quandary is projected convincingly thanks to Martinez’s belting lyricism, which poignantly embraces both the rendering of Chacón-Cruz’s declarative devotion and Domingo’s frayed wistfulness in their respective duets together. The latter pairing notably evokes a comforting naturalism, perhaps an effect of Domingo and Martinez’s decades-long working partnership.
As Rafael the matador, or “El Macareno,” Arturo Chacón-Cruz is outstanding as a chivalrous character whose honor and general lack of pretense are nonetheless belied by his inauspicious fate – delivered only by his blinded-by-love foolhardiness. Rafael’s burning ardor for Soleá swells movingly by way of Chacón-Cruz’s high-register vocal elan, ingratiating him to the audience and making him a sympathetic figure.
Furthermore, Sharmay Musacchio’s Frasquita is a welcomed and soothing veteran presence on the stage; Nancy Fabiola Herrera’s Fortune Teller is enigmatic and enthralling; Rubén Amoretti provides an earnestness and sense of humor as the good-natured Padre Anton; and Daniel Armstrong’s Pezuño and Niru Liu’s Young Shepherd are memorable despite their short-lived appearances.
Ultimately, LA Opera’s production of “El Gato Montés” is not just an ode to Spain’s timeless musical-theater traditions, but the indefatigability of Plácido Domingo, who, next to a fabulous cast, declaims and proves a vigor that ceases to surrender – an extraordinary exception to the rule that one’s prime has a shelf life. In the face of all known precedent, he’s astonishingly only getting better.
For more information about “El Gato Montés,” please visit laopera.org