The Spanish opera, “El Gato Montés”, composed by Manuel Penella in 1916, was mounted by the Los Angeles Opera for the second time in a quarter century. The opera is most famous for its immediately recognizable second act pasodoble, an orchestral interlude that has become the music most heard in association with bullfight ceremonies.
Penella was a younger contemporary of Giacomo Puccini. Penella’s work is influenced by the both by the rhythmic dances of Andalusia and the melodic style of Puccini and his fellow composers of Italian verismo operas.
Although Penella was one of Spain’s most prolific zarzuela composers, “Gato Montés” is a through-composed opera – not, as most zarzuelas are, musicals with spoken dialogue.
The Los Angeles Opera in 1994 produced the American premiere of the opera in its original Spanish (an English version had played on Broadway over seven decades earlier) with Plácido Domingo, a long-time champion of the work, singing the lead tenor role. This month, the Los Angeles Opera is presenting the work again, in a new production and Miguel Roa’s revised ending, with Domingo, now a baritone, singing the title role.
The opera’s story revolves around the relationship of a woman (Soleá) with two men. One (Rafael Ruiz) is a macareno (bullfighter) who has promised Soleá marriage and community approval.
[Below: Solea (Ana María Martínez, center) threatens to kill herself if the two men in her life, Rafael (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, left) and Juanillo (Plácido Domingo, right) do not cease threatening each other; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The other (Juanillo, El Gato Montés) is an outlaw and is a social outcast, because his love for Soleá resulted in his murdering a man who had insulted her. Having escaped from prison, Juanillo is determined never to be jailed again.
Plácido Domingo as Juanillo, El Gato Montés
The opera’s title Gato Montés (wildcat) hints at Juanillo’s mercurial, often ferocious nature. Domingo portrayed Juanillo sympathetically, as devoted to Soleá and intent on being both her lover and protector.
[Below: Plácido Domingo as Juanillo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
To Plácido Domingo’s performance, the adjective phenomenal properly applies. A few weeks earlier Domingo celebrated his 78th birthday, but Domingo shows no signs of the late career vocal disrepair evident in some much younger artists. Domingo’s baritone, secure throughout his range, has lost none of its dramatic force, his intact legato remains smooth and lyrical.
Ana María Martínez as Soleá
Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez reprised the role of Soleá that she had first sung at the Washington National Opera in 1996, opposite Domingo’s Rafael.
Any role that Martínez assays can be expected to combine convincing acting with impressive vocal performance. Portraying the conflicted Soleá, Martínez persuades us that Soleá genuinely cares for both of her suitors, although recognizing that, because of her, they are sworn enemies.
[Below: Ana María Martínez as Soleá; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Soleá’s vocal line, beautifully sung by Martínez, melds Andalusian rhythms with lusicous melodies that would not seem foreign in a Puccini opera. Martínez also displayed a gracefulness at dancing, joining the company’s flamenco dancers in choreographed steps.
[Below: Solea (Ana María Martínez, front center) joins in the dancing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rafael, El Macereno
Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz brought his bright-sounding lyric tenor to the role of the bull-fighter Rafael.
Rafael’s music is ardent throughout. His second act duet with Soleá – Torero quiero se – sung with searing passion by Chacón-Cruz and Martínez, was a performance highlight.
[Below: Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rafael; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The production gives us a chance to see a macareno donnng his suit of lights. Beginning bare-chested, Chacón-Cruz’s Rafael has each layer of clothing added under the supervision of his picadors and of Martínez’ Soleá.
[Below: Solea (Ana María Martínez, left) has helped Rafael (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, right) into his suit of lights, but remains apprehensive about the upcoming bullfight; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Nancy Fabiola Herrera as La Gitana
Venezuelan-born Spanish soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, whose career has encompassed both standard repertory opera and zarzuela, appeared in the important role of La Gitana, the gypsy fortune teller who reads Rafael’s palm and determines he will die in the bullring.
[Below: Nancy Fabiola Herrera as La Gitana; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Herrera’s warm mezzo-soprano was enlisted for the fortune-teller’s two scenes, in one of which the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus represented gypsy children.
[Below: La Gitana (Nancy Fabiola Herrera, center) is surrounded by gypsy children (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Rubén Amoretti as Padre Antón and Other Cast Members
Spanish bass Rubén Amoretti brought a rich sound to the role of Padre Antón, providing local color as the cleric who baptises all the community’s matadors. It is Antón (and the audience) to whom Soleá confesses that her true love is Juanillo, and that, although she cares for Rafael, she cannot love him with the same passion.
[Below: Rubén Amoretti as Padre Antón; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Mexican baritone Juan Carlos Heredia performed the role of Hormigón with gusto. California soprano Sharmay Musacchio sympathetically portrayed Rafael’s mother Frasquita.
Niru Liu was affecting as the Young Shepherd in both of that character’s haunting appearances. New York baritone Michael J. Hawk was Rafael’s picador Caireles. Texas baritone Daniel Armstrong was Juanillo’s comrade, Pezuno.
Maestro Jordi Bernàcer and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Spanish Maestro Jordi Bernàcer conducted authoritatively and with obvious passion for Penella’s score. The Los Angeles Opera Chorus, whose vibrant choral work was often sung to pasodoble accompaniment, was directed by Grant Gershon.
Cristina Hoyos’ and Jesus Ortega’s Choreography
Dances are an integral to this production, both because the score is rich in Andalusian dance music, notably the famous second act pasodoble, but also because the dancing represents opera plot points – notably, dancing in flamenco style substituting for the actual bullfight in which Rafael is killed.
The sunny lighting of the first act allowed full appreciation of the dances, that were often obscured in the darkened lighting and scrim of the second act.
Thoughts on “Gato Montes”
The opera’s parallels with Bizet’s “Carmen” seem obvious. There are gypsies and fortune telling that pronounces with certainty a principal character’s impending death, a prediction confirmed by opera’s end.
There is a bullfighter and the bravado and ceremony associated with the profession. There is a woman who has not given up on a man who, through circumstances, has become an outlaw. The emotional words uttered by Juanillo, explaining how love for a woman drove him to becoming an outlaw could have been uttered by Don Jose in the third or fourth acts of “Carmen”.
The opera that comes to my mind for comparison with “Gato Montes” is not “Carmen” as much as Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West [The Girl of the Golden West]”, and its triangle between the virginal Minnie, the outlaw Dick Johnson with whom she has fallen in love, and Sheriff Jack Rance, who loves her and seeks Johnson’s death. Parallels exist between the two women who are respected in their communities (Soleá and Minnie) being in love with a man whom the community fears. Musically, there are moments of “Gato” that remind me of “Fanciulla” (an opera Los Angeles Opera produced with Domingo as the outlaw Dick Johnson.)
Miguel Roa’s Alternate Ending
In Penella’s original score, the second act ends with Soleá falling dead at the sight of the corpse of Rafael, who had been gored by a bull, and the third act with Juanillo recovering Soleá ‘s body, taking it to his hideout, and committing suicide, embracing her dead body.
An alternative ending, promoted by Domingo, was created by the late Spanish Maestro Miguel Roa, a conductor associated with zarzuela. He revised the libretto’s third act and composed alternative music using melodic themes from “Gato Montes” and other Penella works.
In the revised ending, Soleá does not die at the end of the second act, but has been taken by Juanillo, alive, to his hideout. Juanillo is about to be apprehended and returned to jail, a fate he is determined not to suffer, having arranged for his comrade Pezulo to shoot him in the heart in such a circumstance.
[Below: in Miguel Roa’s alternate ending, Juanillo (Plácido Domingo, above, is reunited with Solea (Ana María Martínez, below); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In a moment of terror, Soleá leaps into path of the bullet meant for Juanillo in his pre-arranged suicide and the two lovers die together.
Like in Puccini’s “Tosca”, the soprano, tenor and baritone all die (in both of “Gato Montés” versions) and both the original and the revised versions of the ending have their supporters and detractors. Given the obvious preference of Domingo, who has done so much to promote this opera’s candidacy for the international performance repertory, I would willingly have accepted his judgment in support of Roa’s revisions.
On refIection, I am convinced that Roa’s ending is dramatically stronger than Penella’s original. It is Soleá’s choice to join Juanillo in death, once she comprehends that both the options of the “safe” marriage to Rafael and the revival of the dangerous relationship with Juanillo are gone.
I recommend “El Gato Montés” to all lovers of Andalusian music and Italian verismo, and enthusiastically recommend the performances of Plácido Domingo, the cast, chorus, dancers and orchestra for both the veteran operagoer and the person new to opera.