‘La Vida Breve (A Brief Life)’ & ‘Viva Zarzuela’ at the In Series

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Have you ever seen a show and heard something you know you’ve heard before and thought, “That’s from an opera?” So it was with La Vida Breve, the In Series charming production of this iconic but rarely performed Spanish opera by Manuel De Falla and libretto by Carlos Fernandez Shaw. It is performed in Spanish with English surtitles.

Salud (Shaina Martinez). Photo by Paul Wegner.
Salud (Shaina Martinez). Photo by Paul Wegner.

It’s a tragic one-act filled with the romantic, dramatic music of Spain about a young gypsy girl from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, who falls in love with a rich Spaniard who marries someone of his own class. The extended wedding includes a series of rousing dances that sound awfully familiar.

It is a one-act, so to round out the evening, the In Series begins with a “curtain raiser” called Viva Zarzuela. It’s a different genre, more like our modern musicals with short songs that tell a small story.

Jaime Coronado directs and choreographs both acts. Throughout both, four dancers, Alisa Bernstein, Sara Herrera, Laura Quiroga, and Tsaitami Duchicela in colorful flamenco skirts by costume designer Donna Breslin, dance around the stage with dramatic stomping and swirling of flamenco. For the opera and zarzuela, Coronado keeps the staging simple, which keeps the focus on the singing.

Music Director and pianist Carlos César Rodriguez is billed in the program as El Maestro, which is literally and figuratively true. I think the sheet music is just for show at some points and had this been nothing but a piano recital, it would have been a great show. He’s joined onstage for some parts by fabulous flamenco guitarist Patricio Zamorano.

Christine Soler and Pablo Henrich-Lobo launch the zarzuelas with the playful “Paloma’s Song” and “Peasant Song.” Only the Spanish can make love singing, “La, la, la.” Alex Alburqueque sings “Mr. Hilarion’s Couplets” and thrives on the comedy. The concert ends on a high note, literally with “El Vito” sung by Peter Burroughs who also dances flamenco and plays the castanets.

When the curtain rises on the second act, the set by Osbel Susman-Peña cleverly switches from nightclub to the hills of Spain. A series of panels, painted on both sides, conjure houses or courtyards while a smattering of furniture set each scene. The lighting by Stefan Johnson drenches the background in the rich tones of a Spanish sky.

Burroughs continues in the role of Paco, the faithless groom, and is joined by Shaina Martínez (Salud), who is not even out of school yet though you wouldn’t know from hearing her.  She trains at the University of Maryland. Her soprano voice is just beautiful and the gravitas she brings to this tragic character far outstrips her years. Their duet “Paco, Paco, Mi Salud!” is beautiful.

She also duets often with Patricia Portillo (Grandmother) on “Abuela, no viene!” [Grandmother, he isn’t coming!] The contrast between soprano and mezzo-soprano, youth and power is impressive. Speaking of power, Jose Sacín (Tio Sarvaor) blows the roof off as usual with his baritone and stage presence in “Alli esta! Riyendo!” [There he is, laughing…] The supporting cast are all strong as well, particularly the men. Unusually, a chorus of male voices accompanies the first act and serves as an ominous counterpoint to the young lovers.

Throughout the opera, The Poet (Brian Shaw) recites poems of Federico García Lorca. In Series Artistic Director Carla Hübner is always making these kinds of interesting shows pulling various mediums together. In this case, it was a little much with the lighthearted concert plus a tragic one-act, plus the poetry, but each piece is as impeccable as usual.

Sara Herrera, Alisa Bernstein, Laura Quiroga. Photo by Paul  Wegner.
Sara Herrera, Alisa Bernstein, Laura Quiroga. Photo by Paul
Wegner.

As the show says, life is brief, but La Vida Breve is time well spent. The singers are impressive, the music is fun and the chance to see this rare opera on the 100th anniversary of its premiere (almost to the day), is a chance not to be missed.

Running time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

La Vida Breve & Viva Zarzuela plays through November 1, 2014 at the In Series at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.

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Jessica Vaughan
Jessica Vaughan hails from Boulder, Colorado and the University thereof. She has a degree in English and creative writing, though she's dabbled in theater her entire life She moved to DC the week of Snowmageddon and promptly camped out in the Kennedy Center. By day she works for a national non-profit and as a freelance writer specializing in newsletters for small businesses and by night she spends her time Irish dancing and discovering the obscure corners of the DC theater scene, which she was thrilled to discover is every bit as awesome as New York or London (without the skyscrapers and incessant honking).