Florida Grand Opera's Luisa Fernanda Wraps Ears and Eyes in Fairy Tale Beauty at Arsht

But once the show was under way, it took only minutes to realize it was worth the wait. As we closed our eyes to the soul-startling voice of Amparo Navarro (the singer who starred as Luisa Fernanda), we swore we could feel our brain waves slow and reset. We became happily suspended before a crisply illuminated music box, where quaintly costumed figures rotated around one another, and from which delicious, rich superhuman voices emanated. 

Luisa is Florida Grand Opera's first zarzuela, a Spanish form of musical theater which alternates between spoken lines and song. Having previously attended a few straight up Italian operas, we appreciated the variation. As novices, we felt we were able to savor each individual vocal performance better because of it.   

With a libretto written by Federico Romero and Guillermo Fernandez Shaw and first performed in Madrid in 1932, the zarzuela tells of a love triangle between Luisa Fernanda, her first love, a reckless, arrogant bastard by the name of Javier Moreno (Antonio Gandia), and a wealthy, morally upright farmer, Vidal Hernandez (Angel Odena). 

Javier has tumbled back to Madrid to try to relive the euphoric feelings he experienced when he first fell in love there with Luisa years before. To Luisa's dismay, though, it doesn't seem as though his plan to regenerate those feelings involves her in any way. Instead, his affections are quickly snapped up by the wealthy, beautiful, and manipulative duchess Carolina (Davinia Rodriguez). 

Meanwhile, Luisa is propositioned by Vidal, who tells her he seeks a good woman to make his otherwise idyllic country manor complete. Luisa politely declines his offer, telling him she's already been in love with someone else for some time. But Vidal is a man, and isn't about to give up the fight for the woman he loves so easily. With patience and passion on his side, it looks like he'll finally win her heart. Or will he?

What we can tell you for certain is that he won ours. Odena, a baritone from Spain, completely stole the show with his ... sweet Jesus, there is no adjective adequate to describe this man's voice. It shot over the room, filling every crevice with an otherworldly resonance. 

Beyond that, his performance as an actor was equally magnetic. Where he conveyed passionate love, it was as though sunbeams radiated around his body. Where his character was defeated, it seemed a hole sunk into the stage around his feet. We never thought we'd say this about a man in knee-high boots, but the guy was downright sexy. 

We would have happily sat for two hours listening to his voice alone. We can't even imagine what the show will be like when Placido Domingo takes over the role for the gala performance on November 15.  

Other standout performances came from Rodriguez, who, as the conniving duchess, cut a magnificent silhouette on stage in an elegant black lace dress, and whose piercing soprano sliced gracefully through the air every time she opened her songbird mouth. 

Navarro, her face often drawn in an expression of anguish to convey the battle between heart and head her character suffered, also impressed us repeatedly. One song in particular - a slow, tortured melody in which she begs her heart for silence so that she can fully give herself to Vidal, who she knows is the worthier suitor - made us feel like we were wrapped inside a silken cocoon and lifted out of our seats. Really.

We were less moved by Gandia's performance as Javier. In our very humble opinion, the long-haired tenor lacked the charisma to make us understand Luisa's infatuation with his character. Although he gave a few powerful vocal punches, his voice did not carry as well as the other performers'. We get that he's supposed to be the unworthy schmuck of the story, but we still would have liked something more from him.

The visual aspects of the show were simply stunning. The stage was often populated by actors frolicking in billowing, cloud-like white fabrics as a rectangle of pale orange "sunlight" expanded and contracted on the back curtain, appearing sometimes to swallow the whole scene. Each chair, tree, and person was so well illuminated, it was like watching an immense, 3-D, high-definition live show, or turning the pages of a beautiful pop-up fairy tale. 

In all things aesthetic, Luisa Fernanda was a gorgeous production and a privilege to witness. 

The show runs November 18, 20, 22, 23, and 26 at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House (the gala dinner and performance on November 15 appears to be sold out). Tickets cost $19 to $225. Go to the Arsht Center's website or call 305-949-6722.

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.

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