Nearly as old as opera itself, the colorful, tuneful Spanish genre known as zarzuela, a mix of music and spoken dialogue, has enjoyed almost four centuries of popularity in Latin countries but has made only modest inroads elsewhere.
Placido Domingo, whose parents were zarzeula stars, champions the art form whenever and wherever he can. Being general director of the Washington National Opera certainly helps in that cause.
Domingo heads the cast in an entertaining production of Federico Moreno Torroba's Luisa Fernanda that opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. It's the third zarzuela the company has presented in less than a decade.
This particular piece, a love triangle set in the 1860s amid political unrest, has enjoyed more than 10,000 performances since its premiere in Madrid in 1932. It also figures prominently in Domingo's own life.
The tenor's mother was a popular interpreter of the title role; his father excelled in the baritone part of Vidal Hernando. They toured frequently in a zarzeula company directed by Moreno Torroba himself. And, while touring as a chorister in another zarzuela troupe, a teenage Domingo made his debut stepping in for an ill colleague to sing the tenor role of Javier in Luisa Fernanda.
This personal connection to the work could be felt throughout Domingo's performance on Saturday. With that impossibly time-defying voice of his, he offered warm, solid, vibrantly detailed phrasing as Vidal, the wealthy landowner who successfully woos Luisa from a haughty military officer, only to lose her at the end.
This baritonal music suits Domingo's voice perfectly - and, of course, leaves him room to add in a high tenor note here and there, as he did splendidly in one of the score's most infectious arias, Ay! Mi morena, monena clara. His acting stayed rather one-dimensional, but did the job.
Maria Jose Montiel was a persuasive Luisa. Aside from some edginess in the upper register, the mezzo-soprano's vocal powers proved considerable, and she brought a good deal of theatrical finesse to the assignment.
As Javier, the caddish colonel brought back to reality and Luisa when he ends up on the losing side of a revolt, Israel Lozano sang with a honeyed tone that wrapped itself elegantly around the music. This recent Peabody Conservatory product did not entirely succeed in revealing the allure that would make Luisa pine for such a loser, but it was still an effective effort.
Elena de la Merced's beautifully molded soprano enriched the role of Duchess Carolina, who fatefully catches Javier's eye. The supporting cast and chorus proved reliable. The orchestra, led with obvious idiomatic flair by Miguel Roa, seemed to revel in the sunny score.
You might expect a sunny staging to go with that music, but Paul Taylor's minimalist set sticks mostly to black and white shades and, for props, relies mostly on chairs, the oldest cliche in post-modern stagecraft by now. (Yes, the chairs are overturned for the uprising scene.)
Still, the sleek look, complemented by Pepa Ojanguren's lovely costumes, is certainly stylish, nowhere more beguilingly than in the opening choral scene of Act 2, full of top hats and parasols.
Director Emilio Sagi infused such lighthearted scenes with abundant spirit, bringing out the strong connection between zarzuela and operetta, but didn't always make the darker elements in the plot look as convincing. And it's possible to quibble with the way Sagi seems to skirt the original unhappy ending, suggesting a brighter prospect for the tearful Vidal.
The uninitiated may find the mix of light banter, socialistic preaching, old-fashioned love story and equally old-fashioned violence in this work a little awkward. But there is nothing here more implausible than in the typical opera. And, besides, with one engaging tune after another, it would be hard not to fall for Luisa Fernanda's charms.
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, 2 p.m. Nov. 14, 7 p.m. Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 and 19
Tickets: $45 to $290
Call: 800-876-7372, 202-295-2400