Opera Factory | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Opera Factory 

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OPERA FACTORY

The Opera Factory outdid itself last fall with a handsomely mounted tribute to Manuel de Falla, a major Spanish composer who made minor contributions to the zarzuela, the national folk opera this presenter specializes in. I wish it would build on that promise by following up with a full-fledged production of a rarely performed zarzuela--rare outside the Spanish-speaking world, anyway--instead of the greatest-hits potpourri that kicks off its12th season. Still, in a way this sampler of some of the most endearing zarzuela tunes may just be as cogent in showing the appeal and limitations of a form that originated as court entertainment, then evolved at the dawn of Franco's regime into a vehicle for populist sentiments. Mixing a good dose of escapist fantasy with hints of political protest, a typical zarzuela plot takes up the cause of the middle class even while tentatively embracing the upper crust. Consider the perennial favorite Luisa Fernanda, two duets and a mazurka chorus from which are on the program: set against the backdrop of an antimonarchist revolution, it features a heroine who's in love with both a royalist and an insurgent landowner, and its musical numbers, regional songs clothed in operatic splendor, reflect that ambivalence. Even more intriguing is the title song from Maria la O, by the prolific Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona. From the 20s until Castro's takeover in the late 50s, the widely traveled Lecuona served as a bridge between the Lisztian virtuoso mainstream and the more improvisatory fringe. In Maria la O, the tale of a mulatto peasant girl's doomed infatuation with a young Spanish grandee, he scored an artistic coup by incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythms into an operatic context. A piano transcription of this and other pieces performed by Lecuona are now available on a BMG Classics reissue; at this concert, "Maria la O" will be sung by mezzo-soprano Helene Pickett. The bottom half of this double bill belongs to Zabava, a reputable Belarussian folk-dance troupe whose musical instruments include a washboard and a hollow stalk of wheat. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 773-935-6860, 773-761-1334, or 312-902-1500. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Luisa Fernanda.

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