‘Pocket Opera x2: ‘The Spirits & The Heart’ at The In Series by Jessica Vaughan

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The In Series has launched another unique and intimate production of two very different operas, Puccini’s Le Villi [The Spirits] and Heart of Madrid, which explores the zarzuela or light opera tradition of Spain.

Peter Burroughs. Photo by  Imraan Peerzada.

Peter Burroughs in ‘Le Villi.’ Photo by Imraan Peerzada.

Le Villi was Giacomo Puccini’s first opera. Ferdinando Fortuna wrote the libretto. It is a one-act opera-ballet he originally submitted to a competition. He didn’t win, but caught a producer’s eye and launched his career. In this piece, much of the musical language that dominates his later work is already apparent, from the lyrical, emotive score to the challenging vocal parts. Carlos C. Rodriguez arranged the score for this production and more than does him justice – filling the theater with soft runs of arpeggios as the large cast wanders on stage dressed by Costume Designer Sehar Peerzada in bold, primary colors and brocades of a Spanish family. The set by Osbel Susman- Peña has the barest suggestion of rooftops, and subtle draped cloth conjures the forest, highlighted by dramatic lighting by Klyph Stanford.

The musicians are tucked in one corner of a mostly empty stage to leave room for the dancing. Rodriguez is incredibly busy at the piano – conducting with a nod of his head and trading solos with cellist René Molina and violinist John Philligin III.

The plot concerns the spirits who wait in the woods to avenge wronged lovers. Artistic Director Carla Hübner advised everyone to bring handkerchiefs; it is a very moving piece, especially the dances. Dancer Heidi L. Kershaw twirls ominously around the lovers draped in diaphanous purple. Choreographer Dan Joyce excels at visually expressing the music with a pleasing blend of acrobatics and movement.

The ensemble is very busy in this piece and Director Abel Lopez has assembled such a strong cast of singers. They sound great from the jubilant beginning “Blessings to the betrothed!” (Evviva i fidanzati!) to the “Finale” with its whirling dancing spirits and the singers urging them on. A highlight of the piece was “Angel of God” (Angiol di Dio). It’s a community’s blessing on the lovers and a transcendental piece of music.

Gregory Stuart (Guglielmo) begins that song. He replaced another actor only three weeks before the production, but it’s impossible to tell. He has such character to his voice. Randa Rouweyha and Peter Joshua Burroughs (Anna and Roberto) play the lovers. Rouweyha has a voice made for tragedies – very expressive on her arias “If I were but a small flower/Remember me” (Se come voi piccina io fossi) and “Did you forget your word?” (Ricordi quel che dicevi Nel mese dei fiori?). Burroughs has a beautiful tenor that could thrive on a huge stage, so it’s a treat to see him in a more intimate venue, especially on his final tortured “There is the house/Return to those happy days” (Ecco la casa. Dio, che orrenda notte!)

Burroughs also has the greatest transition between act one and act two, when the next pocket opera begins, the Heart of Madrid. He plays a caricature of an opera star with a hilarious Spanish accent. Most of the cast takes on another contrasting roll for this second comedic one-act set in Madrid in the 1940’s. Rodriguez is at the piano again and even sang on a few songs and Lopez directs.

L-R: Adriana Gonzalez, Brendan Sliger, Aurelio Dominguez, Gregory Stuart, Adrienne, Starr, and Eduardo Castro in 'Heart of Madrid.' Photo by Imraan Peerzada.

L-R: Adriana Gonzalez, Brendan Sliger, Aurelio Dominguez, Gregory Stuart, Adrienne, Starr, and Eduardo Castro in ‘Heart of Madrid.’ Photo by Imraan Peerzada.

Zarzuela are light operas from 1700-1800s Spain. They have more in common with our modern musicals than opera with catchy, distinct songs surrounded by dialogue. For this production, Playwright Elizabeth Pringle has stitched together songs from twelve different zarzuelas in an outlandish plot that begins as a drunk American, an amnesiac, and a bullfighter walk into a bar…in Madrid. The songs themselves were a lot of fun, but I can’t help thinking there was a less ridiculous plot to join them together. The character acrobatics detract a little from the singing, but the actors get into the spirit of things and as always, the music is brilliant.

The best part is the fact that every actor onstage is featured on one song or another. Eduardo Castro (Julian) is a standout on “Song of the Toreador” with his dramatic voice. Adriana Gonzalez and Christine Soler (Fortune Teller and Cristina) did a great job on “Couplets from Babylon,” a tricky, funny song about women and love. Adrienne Starr (Paloma) has a light soprano that soars on songs like “Pretty Girl’s Tango.” The whole cast dance around in joy on the final “Quartet & Carriage Song” in an eerie echo of the tragedy of a similar scene from act one. The unexpected mirror serves to draw these two pieces together.

The In Series thrives at combining the essentials of music, dance, singing and performance into productions that are innovative, professional, and never derivative and they have succeeded again – exploring zarzuela with a new libretto and breathing life into the spirits of Le Villi for a moving, amusing night of opera.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Pocket Opera x2: ‘The Spirits & The Heart plays through December 1, 2013 at GALA Hispanic Theater – 3333 14th Street, NW. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online. 

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