A dashing “Zorro” captures hearts in Fort Worth Opera’s world premiere

Thu Jan 27, 2022 at 5:02 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
It’s courtship and swordplay for Ana Maria (Gabriella Enríque) and undercover nobleman Diego (César Delgado) in Fort Worth Opera’s rousing production of Zorro. Photo: Ryan Scott Lathan/FWO

Composer, librettist and history buff Héctor Armienta took about ten years to complete his new opera Zorro, a risky reimagining of the century-old pulp hero tale in an unexpectedly neo-Romantic musical setting. It was a decade well spent based on the world premiere given by Fort Worth Opera on Wednesday night at Rose Marine Theater.

A creatively lighted, full-costume production accompanied by just piano and guitar, and sung without a chorus, Zorro came to stirring life in the logistically strict confines of the 254-seat hall. Credit a tuneful and emotive score, powerful use of leitmotif, nimble direction and staging, and a strong cast to put across the opera’s winning mix of humor, action, romance and bilingual flair.

The venue in North Side Fort Worth is far smaller than the organization’s customary downtown home for full-fledged productions, the 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall. But it better serves FWO’s mission of bringing opera to communities that traditionally don’t experience or have access to it. A clamorous, audibly happy audience also helped to make Zorro’s first day in the canon a success. 

Set unconventionally in early 19th Century Los Angeles — then a colony of New Spain — the opera follows Diego de la Vega, esteemed swordsman and Spanish nobleman, as he fights for the poor and enslaved. With his true identity concealed behind a black mask and a dashing pseudonym, Diego as Zorro forsakes his regal birthright to defend the battered and subjugated mestizo Indians against the extrajudicial tyranny of the village mayor, Géneral Moncada. In the process Zorro defends his love, Ana Maria, from persecution — a proper homage to the gritty verismo genre.

Humorous side-plot vignettes temper the drama and give the story a wholesome provincial appeal centered on a romance between two secondary characters: the affectionately bumbling Sergeant Gomez and the playful villager Luisa 

Armienta’s score is brimming with Latin and Hispanic influences. Elements of buleria flamenco, corrido song and mariachi give the music a vibrant storytelling edge throughout, with robust syncopated dance rhythms as well as high-stepping hemiolas, passionate harmonic progressions and clear thematic scoring. Christopher McGuire’s guitar playing in this bare-bones production nicely communicated the story’s musical milieu without detracting from Charlene Lotz’s piano accompaniment. Paired with a libretto that seamlessly mixes English and Spanish texts, the material shines with Latin cultural refinement.

The singing at this premiere was a group achievement, showcasing several locally-based artists. Tenor César Delgado was a riveting Diego/Zorro. No stranger to the bel canto stylings asked of the role, he sang with a consistent richness of tone and flexibility throughout his wide range. Opposite him was soprano Gabriella Enríquez, making her FWO debut as Ana Maria. Enríquez, strong of voice, was a bit overpowering as a romantic lead but her acting prowess provided welcome balance.

Soprano Gabrielle Gilliam was lighthearted and agile in tone as Luisa. Baritone Brandon Bell as Gomez — a role practically written to steal the show — was rib-tickling and robust. In his FWO debut, his comic timing and deft use of pantomime elevated the character and the entire production. It’s a certainty that he will be returning to the FWO stage in other roles before long.

Director Octavio Cardenas, given the pared-down setting, did well to convey the impact of a full-scale production, with creative lighting design and smart period costumes doing much of the heavy lifting. Jeffrey Colangelo’s fight choreography was decently convincing in a small venue where the up-close audience sight lines would challenge anyone trying to stage plausible swordplay. 

The story, the excitement and the contemporary-minded social commentary all come together in luscious, fiery tones and a straightforward, captivating narrative. For what it is — an iconic pulp serial remade as opera — it is sure to become a favorite when it is inevitably picked up for a full-resources production.

Zorro will be repeated 7 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday. fwopera.org, 817-731-0726

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