'Dona Francisquita' is laudable but slight

January 21, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- "Dona Francisquita" is charming and trivial -- or, if you prefer, trivial but charming. It's a fine example of why zarzuela, a folk opera that has flourished in Spain for three centuries, really doesn't translate to a non-Latino market.

But I also applaud the Washington Opera for presenting it in the face of conservative audience preferences. It's refreshing to see something on the opera stage besides yet another dreary "Traviata."

It's here because of Placido Domingo, the Spanish-born superstar who heads the Washington Opera. When he took the job, he extracted a promise from the board that he could present one off-the-beaten-track piece of repertory each season. Last year, it was "Il Guarany," a forgotten 112-year-old opera by the Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes, and "El Gato Montes" ("The Wildcat"), a zarzuela by Manuel Penella.

"Dona Francisquita" (1923) is a merry comedy of manners set in Madrid in the mid-19th century, a time of social change in Spain (and, indeed, all over Europe). The highly chaperoned lives of bourgeois Spanish girls are giving way to freer behavior.

So Francisquita is able to carry out a complicated plan to capture Fernando, a university student infatuated with a beautiful but heartless actress, La Beltrana. At the same time, she must fend off Fernando's father, Don Matias, who is paying court to her, ignoring the mature charms placed before him by her widowed mother.

Somehow, composer Amadeo Vives (1871-1932) manages to stretch this slender plot to epic length. (With intermissions, the opera runs 3 hours and 10 minutes.) But his musical skills are as slight as the story.

"Dona Francisquita" is filled with tunes, but few of them run longer than a few bars. Beyond a couple of extended arias and a wedding chorus, the music is less complex and extensive than that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. I walked out unable to recall a single melody.

The production, which is shared with the Teatro Lirico Nacional de la Zarzuela of Madrid and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, is a handsome thing, with an elaborate set (somewhat cluttered with pillars) by Ezio Frigerio and beautiful costumes by Franca Squarciapino. Joan Sullivan's lighting brings out the glories of the day -- the opera takes place on Mardi Gras -- from bright morning to festive evening; and in Act 2, she creates a long, long sunset: a good 15 minutes or more.

The fine singers are all experienced zarzuela performers, from Isabel Monar of Spain in the title role to Cecilia Diaz of Argentina as the fickle actress; from Mexican tenor Alfredo Portilla as Fernando (who will be succeeded by Spanish tenor Santiago Calderon in all remaining performances) to Emilio Sanchez as his best friend, Cardona, who has a wonderful scene in drag as a buxom man-hunter.

The character roles are a delight: mezzo Marta Culleres as the mother, bass Luis Maria Bragato as Don Matias and baritone Juan Rodo as the arrogant rival for the actress' favors. All are Argentine.

Stage director Emilio Sagi managed to keep the action moving around the pillars, but his finest touch was with the masked players of Mardi Gras who float in and out of the action. Against the long sunset of the second act, their slow-motion traversal of the stage becomes a haunting foreshadow of the penitential season to come.

'Dona Francisquita'

By Amadeo Vives

Producer: Washington Opera

When: 7: 30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26 and Jan. 29, Feb. 4, Feb. 7, Feb. 11 and Feb. 13; 2 p.m. Feb. 1 and Feb. 15

Where: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington

Tickets: $36-$205

Call: 800-876-7372

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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