Washington Opera's 'El Gato' is powerfully done, until the end


For the second time in what is still a young season, the Washington Opera on Saturday night introduced another new work to its repertory. It was Manuel Penella's "El Gato Montes" ("The Wildcat").

You may not have heard of Penella (1880-1939) -- he rates only a single paragraph in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera -- but he was one of Spain's most prolific composers, producing some 80 zarzuelas, musical comedies and revues between 1894 and the year of his death. "El Gato" belongs to the tradition of the zarzuela, the Spanish equivalent of what is called operetta in Vienna, opera-comique in Paris and Broadway musical in New York. It is a genre that typically includes spoken as well as sung passages.

But Penella himself called "El Gato" (1916) an opera, a designation justified by the absence of spoken dialogue and by a treatment of tragic love, lust and honor that owes as much to Puccini and the Italian verists as it does to Spanish operatic tradition. This blood-and-guts story of a bullfighter and a bandit, and the woman they both love, is a favorite of Placido Domingo, the Washington Opera's new artistic director. He has recorded it (for Deutsche Grammophon) and sung the role of the bullfighter, Rafael, throughout the world, most recently in Los Angeles, in a production televised last season on PBS.

The Washington Opera's production at the Kennedy Center is borrowed from that of L.A. and identical to it in all respects, except for its much younger cast and -- in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to make "El Gato" more comprehensible -- its altered ending.

Even without the presence of Domingo and the other well-known singers in the Los Angeles staging, this is a terrific production of a worthy work. It is passionate, rhythmically vital, beautifully written for the voice and full of orchestral color.

The highlight of the superb cast, almost all of whom were making Washington debuts, was the Puerto Rican soprano, Ana Maria Martinez, who took the part of Solea. She is a young woman with enormous stage presence and acting ability, and her striking looks make it easy to imagine that two men would be willing to die for her. She also has a voice beautiful enough to make many another lyric soprano envy her. Her singing easily cut through the orchestra and never turned shrill, even at the highest dynamic levels.

She was well-partnered by the Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas as the bullfighter, Rafael -- together they made the second act duet, "Me llamaba, Rafaliyo," as beautiful as the most affecting Puccini -- and by the Spanish baritone Eduardo Del Campo as the bandit known as El Gato Montes. Del Campo is an enormous young man with what appears to be an enormously promising future. He moves as gracefully as an NBA power forward and one imagines that his big, smoothly produced voice will make him ideal for the title role in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" or as Rodrigo in Verdi's "Don Carlo."

Less important parts were well-sung by Kimm Julian (as the picador Hormigon), Marianne Cornetti (as the bullfighter's mother, Frasquita), Virginia Alonso-Tokarz (as the Gypsy fortune-teller) and Rod Nelman (as the priest).

Compelling staging was provided by Emilio Sagi; the imaginative scenery and authentic costumes by Julio Galan; the orchestra was stirringly conducted by Miguel Roa; and the fine chorus was prepared by Alan Nathan.

And now for a caveat. A note distributed before Saturday night's performance informed critics that artistic director Domingo, conductor Roa and stage director Sagi had devised a new ending because -- after productions of "El Gato" in Seville, Madrid, Tokyo and L.A. -- they had decided "audiences found the original ending . . . confusing and dissatisfying."

In Act II of the original work, Solea dies offstage after hearing her fiance, Rafael, has died in the bullring. In Act III, the bandit, El Gato Montes, claims her body and carries it back to the mountains. But a posse tracks him to his hideaway and, believing he has nothing to live for, he commits suicide.

In Domingo's recording -- which is faithful to the original -- this is neither confusing nor dissatisfying. But those terms describe exactly the altered ending, which leaves Solea alive after Rafael's death and has her go off with the Wildcat to his lair. The Act III aria the Wildcat sings to Solea only makes sense if he is addressing the corpse of his beloved.

The new music, including a duet for Solea and El Gato, Roa has composed for Act III is shockingly below the level of the rest of Penella's score. And that El Gato would commit suicide after he has finally attained his heart's desire, leaving Solea defenseless, is ridiculous. When he composed "El Gato" in 1916, Penella had worked successfully in the theater for 20 years. He knew what he was doing. Washington Opera would have done well to leave well enough alone.

"El Gato Montes": tonight, Saturday, Monday, Jan. 12, 17, 21, 24, 28 and Feb. 2, 5 and 8. All times 7: 30 p.m. except Jan. 12 and Feb. 2 at 2: 30 p.m. (202) 467-4600.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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