Wild Thing, She Makes Your Heart Sing; Meow

SpainSpain Manuel Penella: El gato montés: Soloists, Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid, Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela, Óliver Díaz (conductor), Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid, 3.3.2012 (JMI)

New Production

Direction: José Carlos Plaza
Sets and Lighting: Francisco Leal
Costumes: Pedro Moreno
Choreography: Cristina Hoyos


Rafael, El Macareno: Ricardo Bernal
Soleá: Saioa Hernández
Juanillo, El Gato Montés: José Julián Frontal
Frasquita: Milagros Martín
Father Antón: Enrique Baquerizo
Hormigón: Luis Cansino
Gipsy: Marifé Nogales

Picture courtesy Teatro de la Zarzuela

El gato montés (“The Wild Cat”) is, always has been, and always will be a Spanish opera. Emphasis on “opera”, not “Spanish”, mind you. Because ever since its 1917 premiere in Valencia Manuel Penella’s ‘Cat’ (a Bobcat, to be precise) has been dubbed—maybe maligned—a Zarzuela. It is not. The easiest way to tell: it contains no dialogue at all.

Manuel Penella follows two lines of early 20th century opera trends. His work reflects the triumph of Verismo in Italian opera, spearheaded by Puccini (La fanciulla del West premiered in 1910, Il Trittico was to follow in 1918). He also picks up on the successful Spanish music of those years that added national touches to the prevailing Verismo. Manuel de Falla composed La vida Breve (1914) and El amor Brujo (1915), and Enrique Granados produced Goyescas in 1916. Nothing was therefore more natural than for Penella to follow the fashion of the day and write El gato montés, a true Spanish verismo opera with bullfighters, picadors, pistoleros, gypsies, priests and navajas.

available at Amazon
M.Penella, El Gato Montés,
M.Roa / Madrid SO /
Domingo, Villarroel, Pons, Berganza

The opera was successful in its early years, even making it to New York’s Broadway in the 20s. Then it fell into oblivion until it was resurrected in 1969 at Teatro de la Zarzuela. Later Plácido Domingo realized that this opera suited him, and it was again performed during the 92/93 season. It was a triumph and there is a commercial recording with supermán himself, Veronica Villarroel, Juan Pons, and Teresa Berganza. There have been only a few performances recently; some in Valencia about 10 years ago and now the Cat has become part of the Teatro de la Zarzuela’s season. (Which will probably perpetuate its Zarazuela-reputation). The opera has its highs and lows, but offers superb vocal possibilities for the two protagonists (bullfighter Rafael and gypsy-lady Soleá). Musically, I find it quite interesting in its first half, but particularly tedious the last act.

For anyone not familiar with the work, the plot is about the loves of the gypsy Soleá, desired by the bullfighter Rafael “El Macareno” and by the outlaw Juanillo “El Gato Montés”. The two men are challenged to a duel, but the bullfighter dies in the arena, leaving Soleá to die of sorrow and remorse. The pistolero takes the corpse of Solea to the mountains. When he is about to arrested, Juanillo asks his lieutenant to kill him and he dies with his beloved Soleá. As promised: True Spanish Verismo.

Teatro de la Zarzuela put on a new production by José Carlos Plaza, whose minimalist line and very dark tones give priority to melodrama over the possible colorful Andalusia. The stage direction is good, and the bullfight scene—probably containing the most popular Pasodoble ever written—is imaginatively solved.

Teatro de la Zarzuela puts on so many performances of each title (19 in this case), that it usually has two different casts and conductors. On March Third, Óliver Diaz led the second cast before a fully sold out house and offered a good reading of the opera, especially in its first half. The orchestra, however, was not particularly good.

Mexican tenor Ricardo Bernal as Rafael offered an attractive voice, easy at the top, but very small in size and not quite suited to the character. Soleá was very well played and sang by Saioa Hernandez, a lyric soprano with a powerful, not particularly beautiful voice. She lived the character though, and conveyed her emotions to the audience. The third main character is the catty bandit Juanillo. José Julián Frontal made much of a character that is musically the least favored by the score. All the secondary characters were excellent.

José Mª Irurzun