Spanish program whets appetite for more

Dawnell Smith

It would be easy to call "Hot Spanish Nights" the CliffsNotes of Spanish flamenco and zarzuela. The show opens with flamenco guitar and dance and ends with an abbreviated performance of the Spanish operetta, "Tabernera del Puerto" ("The Tavern Girl of the Port").

But where CliffsNotes sates curiosity through brevity, this varied production by Anchorage Opera flames the desire for more.

The show opens with "Homage to Spain" with Roberto Castellon on guitar and Omayra Amaya in a sheer black dress and heels. Flamenco's telltale coupling of fluidity with flurries of percussion seared the Discover Theatre on Wednesday night.

Sitting with one leg crossed over the other, his face placid and body still, Castellon played as if born to it. Indeed he was. The flamenco guitarist, singer and composer who first performed on stage at age 6 wooed the crowd with his virtuosity by letting his strumming, thumping, picking hand convey passion and restraint in equal measure.

At the same time, Amaya moved with the formal intensity of the style, holding her body in a formal line while using her hips, hands, arms and feet to convey sensuality and authority. Steeped in the Gypsy flamenco tradition by lineage, she seemed to meld with the music effortlessly, joining the duet musically by clapping her hands and snapping her heels.

Later in "The Ballad of Granada," she looked so at ease and immersed with the song that she smiled vaguely, but deeply -- perhaps more to herself than to the appreciative audience.

In between the two flamenco numbers, pianist Juliana Osinchuk performed "Spanish Dances" by Enrique Granados. The piece broke the tension of the two guitar-infused numbers, bookending it. Here, Osinchuk created heat of her own and the crowd clapped enthusiastically at the pauses.

These stark performances passed almost too quickly and a taut undercurrent of passion and fury segued into intermission.

When the lights went down a second time, the rising curtain revealed a body of musicians and a huge tonal change. The intense and serious vigor of flamenco gave way to the lightness of zarzuela, the Spanish version of American musical theater.

Charming Pablo Zinger -- the conductor and narrator -- led the audience through a shortened version of "La Tabernera del Puerto," arguably the most popular Spanish operetta, by doing short but thorough narratives between the musical numbers.

Guest artist Virginia Herrera-Crilly played the tavern girl Marola, who finds herself trapped by her father's conniving as she welcomes a sailor's longing and love. Though given just a few scenes to do it, Herrera embodied the part opening night by giving the character the maturity of a woman who pours drinks and knows the darker side of men.

Armando Mora (Marola's no-good father, Juan de Eguia) and Maurico O'Reilly (the smitten sailor, Leandro) paired wonderfully with the soprano, each with his own allure and radiance, and each with a strong presence.

Local performers proved just as saucy and able. Noting just a few memorable numbers, John Fraser (Chinchorro) joined Nancy Caudill (Antigua) in a bawdy duet about love, lust and drinking, while Torrie Allen (Simpson) sang a poignant piece about the sorrows and inhumanities of the slave trade. The audience clearly loved hearing the trademark bass-baritone of the company's general manager.

One would think that this short course in zarzuela would come across as ratty and incomplete, but Zinger's humor and delicacy as the narrator created a rapport with the audience, substituting a loose intimacy for the usual ornamentation and spectacle of opera. The audience seemed more varied in age than usual and it definitely sank into the sultry feel of the show.

As stories go, the "La Tabernera del Puerto" sounds as predictable as many operas -- yet another young woman is treated like a possession by the men in her life, yet embodies the strength of spirit to risk her well being for love and duty. But it gained life in this production through the people who gave it voice.

"Hot Spanish Nights" spoons out a small morsel of what we need more of in this town: variety, ardor and a little peril. Not enough, mind you, but a satisfying bite.

Dawnell Smith lives and writes in Anchorage.

Daily News correspondent