‘Love and Witchcraft’ at The In Series by Jessica Vaughan

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The In Series mounts a lovely and powerful production of two operas to open their thirtieth consecutive season. Producing Artistic Director Carla Hübner, who founded the Series in 1982 has called the evening Love and Witchcraft as part of their Pocket Opera. Although both of the operas – Dido and Aeneas and El Amor Brujo – deal with that theme, the contrast between them is sharp and the juxtaposition offers a good look at the range of styles possible in opera today.

Pockets opera may sound at first like an oxymoron. How can you fit arguably the most dramatic and larger-than-life performances in your pocket? But the intimate venue at Source makes for a wonderful opportunity to experience these artists at close range. You can notice and appreciate the style and the singing in the way you just can’t in a large auditorium.

The first opera, Dido and Aeneas, is the more traditional offering from English composer Henry Purcell. In this version of the myth, written in 1688, three witches seek to separate the lovers as they’ve just found each other. Director Alan Paul has created a charming production of these beautiful songs, aided by Musical Director and keyboardist Paul Levitt.

The opera starts as dancer Heidi Kershaw is literally shot by Cupid’s arrow and she choreographs her own dance to act out the drama before the singers take the stage for fast-paced playful songs like “The Triumphing Dance” and “Come Away Fellow Sailors” and the dramatic “Jove’s Command Shall Be Obeyed” and “When I am Laid In Earth”.

The night belongs to Anamer Castrello as the star of both operas. Her mezzo-soprano voice is gorgeous and a true powerhouse, but one that never overwhelms. Robert Yacoviello (Aeneas) is also a strong singer and listening to him made me wish more men would declare their love by breaking into song, provided they sound like him. Patricia Portillo (Belinda) has a voice that shines in this smaller venue. Her command is impressive and being so close gives you a chance to appreciate it. Adrienne Starr, Adriana Gonzalez, and Tia Wortham as the sorceress and two witches clearly enjoy their dancing and scheming and their voices work well together. Though perhaps the most enjoyable part of the evening is when the entire ensemble sings together. There is not a weak link among them and the harmonies are simply beautiful. At several moments they begin to laugh in song and it is far more magical than the magic in the story. The string quartet and pianist back the singers with a light and accomplished performance.

From l-r; Ashley Dannewitz (Lady in Waiting), Heidi Kershaw (Bleeding Heart), and Patricia Portillo (Belinda) surround Anamer Castrello as their dying Queen Dido in ‘Dido & Aeneas.’

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi creates simple yet effective designs in both operas. For the first she uses fabrics with Turkish rugs covering the stage, and draped sheer purple scraves as backdrop to convey the sumptuous and idyllic setting. In stark contrast in El Amor Brujo, the tone is darker and the set is dominated by red paint that covers the floor and the back wall. A bed and a chair are its only embellishments.

Costume Designer Donna Breslin works similar miracles especially in Dido and Aeneas with authentic and beautiful period costumes. My favorite though was the dancer, who was shot by Cupid’s arrow and dances throughout the pay with it sticking through her middle. Similarly her skirt for El Amor Brujo is a beautiful and integral part of the dance.

After intermission and the transformation of the set to the red, pianist Carlos César Rodríguez takes the his seat at the piano for a re-imagined version of El Amor Brujo. He also adapted the score for piano himself and co-directed. His fellow directors, Alan Paul and Jaime Coranado adapted this play from several versions created over the years. The libretto is from the play by Maria L. de Martinez Sierre and other elements are inspired by Gitaneria, a ballet by Manuel de Falla.

In this version, a modern woman of gypsy descent is haunted by her dead lover whom she finally summons to lay to rest. In this version, the only singer is a Castrello, who sings four powerful arias in Spanish that seem as if they were written for her voice. Kershaw plays they gypsy’s former self and dances through most of the piece, sometimes alone and sometimes with Kyle Lang, who plays the ghost of the lover returned. The dancing is mostly modern with broad hints of flamenco and Kershaw is truly amazing to watch both in her ability to emote with her entire body, but also her serious skills as a dancer, which Coronado highlights well in his choreography. And when Lang partners her and lifts her around the stage – it’s breathtaking.

The combination of Castrello’s arias and her dancing with the acrobatics and passion of Rodríguez at the piano makes for an impressive piece and the second act flies by. In fact, by the end I wished these were not only pocket operas but both full operas to see more of all of these performers.

Amor Brujo cast: (from left) Anamer Castrello (Candelas) remembers the past, with dancers Heidi Kershaw, Kyle Lang (Candelas’ former self), and Kyle Lang (ghost of her lover). Photo by Paul Aebersold.

Opera is unique as a style of performance – epic, tragic, and potentially hilarious – long before our stage musicals and special effects movies took over, but I don’t believe it will ever go out of style. There is nowhere else to hear singers like this tell stories like these on a stage and In Series does it again. The night lives up to its name – it is a truly bewitching evening. Opening night was sold out, so be sure to get tickets now.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with a 20 minute intermission.

Love and Witchcraft plays through November 26, 2012 at Source –1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, please call 202-204-7763 or purchase them online.