By Bob Bernard
It was both a last hurrah....and a new beginning.
The 1994 production of Manuel Penella’s El gato montés (The Wildcat) by (what was then) the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (LAMCO) marked the final gathering together of our opera company’s initial group of associated artists who, during the previous eight years, provided a casting reservoir for its productions and worked with the Opera League of Los Angeles, going into private homes, giving mini-concerts and encouraging sign-ups for season subscriptions.
In the lead photo, Suzanna Guzmán is the Gypsy Woman, Michael Gallup is Hormigón, sort-of a “consulting” picador for Plácido Domingo’s bullfighter Rafael Ruiz, and Verónica Villarroel is Soleá, the focal point of the love triangle between Ruiz and Juanillo (the wildcat, or bandit). Besides Guzmán, other associated artists were John Atkins (Cairdes, a friend of the family), Richard Bernstein (Recalcao, the mozo de espada, the lad of the swords, for bullfighter Ruiz), and Greg Fedderly (Street Vendor).
As a new beginning, it – besides being the first Spanish language opera staged by the LAMCO - marked the first performance of this work in the U.S. since the 1921 production at NYC’s Park Theater, the opening night conducted by composer Penella. As Artistic Advisor to LAMCO, Domingo provided the impetus for this new staging. As he recounted to LA Times staff writer Lewis Segal: “My mother and my father met singing zarzuelas. My mother (as Soleá) used to declare her love to my father (as Ruiz) every night in the work and, after three months, my father said that he’d heard it so much that he accepted it. So they got married.”
The opera deals with the rivalry between bullfighter Ruiz (Soleá’s current love) and bandit Juanillo (Soleá’s early love). Act 1 includes a barely avoided duel between the two men. Act 2’s highlight is the bullfight scene in which Ruiz is killed. The opera’s prominent gift to the music world is act 2’s Pasodobles, generally known now as the unofficial anthem for Spanish bullfighting.
Act 3, along with the final moments of act 2, has motivated the creation of several modifications to Penella’s work. LAMCO’s production, with acknowledged (but unspecified) editing of both Penella’s music and libretto by conductor Maestro Miguel Roa, had Soleá dying of grief immediately after Ruiz’s death in the bullring. Act 3 then was dominated, first by family and community mourners for Soleá, and then by a beautiful, deeply-moving lamentation of Juanillo, going through an accelerated version of the Kubler-Ross protocol, and culminating with Juanillo’s appeal for an “assisted suicide,” calling for his compadre Pezuño to shoot him through the heart before the police could capture him.
As profoundly beautiful as LAMCO’s version was, act 3’s fundamental weakness remained as having only one of the three principals still be alive at its start. So when Domingo became Artistic Director for the Washington National Opera, he promoted El gato montés to be a production for the 1996-97 season. Then, with the concurrence of stage director Emilio Sagi, he had conductor Miguel Roa compose new music for act 3, resulting in:
- Soleá would not die of grief at Act 2’s end.
- Instead, Soleá would be taken to Juanillo’s mountain lair in act 3.
- There, new (duet) music (composed by Roa) would have Soleá and Juanillo reminisce in memory of their early days together.
- Then, following Juanillo’s suicide, Soleá would cradle Juanillo’s body.
A subsequent version – and likely what will be staged next in LA – has Soleá and Juanillo dying of the same bullet that is directed at Juanillo, with the two of them embracing at the end.
Truly, a Shakespearean finale.
Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dread thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2