Translating 'Dona Francisquita'

January 15, 1998|By Judith Green

Few opera companies in North America have explored the repertory of the Spanish folk form called zarzuela.

But tenor Placido Domingo, artistic director of Washington Opera, was born in Spain. And one of the conditions when he accepted the job in Washington was that he be allowed to present off-the-beaten-track works as well as standard fare.

This season, it's a work considered the peak of zarzuela, "Dona Francisquita" by Amadeo Vives.

Zarza means bramble, and the operas get their name from the Palacio de la Zarzuela in Madrid, a thickly hedged court where they were first performed.

The earliest were written in the 17th century and were based on plays by great writers of this golden age of Spanish drama.

The zarzuelas performed today, however, date from the mid-19th century, shortly after the Revolution of 1848 began to break down class barriers and the last vestiges of feudal economics all over Europe; and from the first decades of the 20th century, when nationalist composers such as Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados brought about a revival of Spanish cultural awareness.

The 19th-century zarzuelas were popular entertainment, often comic, topical and dotted with barnyard or back-street humor.

In the second great wave, the form had already divided itself into zarzuelas grandes, which were close to romantic opera in size, ++ scope and seriousness; and zarzuelitas or generos chicos, which were comic and satirical -- and also shorter. And still other composers reacted against the form itself and turned to tonadillas, even shorter popular comic operas.

"Dona Francisquita," by Vives (1871-1932), dates from 1923 and has a typically complicated plot: The heroine loves a student, Fernando, who is in love with a temperamental actress, Aurora, called "la Beltrana." Fernando's father also is infatuated with Francisquita, though he is the age of, and is pursued by, her mother.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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