Take advantage of the brief opportunity to see The In Series’ opera, I Pagliacci. Even if you don’t know opera you might discover that you are already familiar with one of the best known arias in all of the repertoire, Vesti la giubba, by composer Ruggero Leoncavallo. Joe Banno has directed a pair of “pocket operas” in a fascinating mirroring of artists’ blurring emotional artifice with real life relationships. Like a game of Clue, the operas give us two rounds of murder. Both feature a knife as the murder weapon. And the room where each murder takes place? One sets the deed in a Havana nightclub and the other a restaurant in Little Italy. (I won’t announce the murderer but it’s not Colonel Mustard.) I will say it’s the opera Pagliacci that really delivers.
Most people think opera plots are highly improbable. The premises of some often are. But Pagliacci stays very much at the heart of things, as it follows the story of a poor traveling company arriving in a town and putting on a show. This update has transformed the group to a bunch of recent immigrants just arrived in New York City’s lower east side in the 1950’s. What a group of misfits and fringe elements! These folk work, play, love and hate together. In other words, they’re a family.
Emotional stakes are high and represent the currency by which they live. Kelley Rourke’s terrific adaptation strengthens this theme by showing their immigrant status of living precariously between two worlds. Her use of bilingual dialogue supports their cross-cultural confusion and vulnerability. The Actor Manager, head of the troupe, both adores and bullies his wife. This Canio is fearfully jealous and early on warns everyone not to joke with him about infidelity. His actress wife, Nedda, is young, restless and yearning to try her wings. She has found love in the figure of Silvio, a local dude. Casting the character of Tonio as the one Negro in the troupe adds racial tension to the story and makes the dismissive, taunting treatment by Nedda racially motivated and all the more cruel. She hardly sees him as human, giving further substance to Tonio’s seething anger that will have his revenge. Maybe their posturing and flare ups have all happened before, and this is what keeps the group going, but on this night and in this performance, the edges between the reality of their performance and their real lives gets blurred then dissolves completely into tragedy.
Director Joe Banno and set designer Osbel Susman-Peña transformed the Source space into an Italian restaurant on the lower east side and cooked up a veritable Italian meat sauce of cultural reality. You could almost smell the garlic!
While most of the singers are featured in both operas on the program, on Saturday night they really found their stride in the power of the I Pagliacci material. Peter Burroughs grounded his singing when playing Canio as the hirsute, macho Italian boss-guy. He found not only a good physicality but filled the role with real moments of pathos and menace. Baritone Alex DeSocco, playing the young lover, Silvio, opened his mouth and suddenly we heard the size voice of someone headed for a serious career if he can let go and physically take more risks. Stanley Webber still wasn’t quite sure of his entrances and exits opening night, but he delivered his rage with vocal authority as the scorned Tonio. As Nedda, Randa Rouweyha did not have as powerful a voice as the others, but her singing was focused and accurate and she had the acting chops to more than match the men. (If only she wouldn’t rise up off her heels to reach for the high notes!) She embodied a feisty Italian woman who could give as good as she got.
Banno directed the play within the play with a fresh take that made genuinely funny a scene that rarely is. Pablo Henrich-Lobo, who, for me, was the find of the evening, threw himself into the roles of Beppo as Arleccino to Rouweya’s Nedda as Columbina. Both had great fun with overly quivering lips and knees. I wasn’t quite sure why Tonio entered dressed as “Joe the Plumber”, but Webber also showed himself adept in a broadstyle minstrel turn that was both comedic and horrific in its intentions.
I Pagliacci was preceded by Ernesto Lecuona’s Cuban zarzuela, Maria la O, where its traditional musical review form was updated and set in a 50’s nightclub in Havana. In this freely adapted libretto by Karen Zacarías, people gather at a club to drink, gossip, share songs, and use these songs to exchange dance partners. All the while they are half hoping that someone from Hollywood will pick them up and give them a break. At the center of their world is Maria O, the headline singer of the club, who has dumped her bartender-lover for an American manager-lover. While they all sing of love and betrayal, they play or get played in a game for fame. Hollywood beckons, and everyone dreams of getting out of Havana and being the new Latin sensation.
When Anamer Castrello as Maria, the mulatta songstress, takes the stage, with her generous smile and curves all swaying to the Latin dance rhythms, she carries the audience with her to Havana. Castrello sings with a sultry, smoky yearning and she gives her all. Unfortunately, most of the cast isn’t as comfortable as she is in the style. On Saturday night, the show was still finding itself. The verdict’s still out whether the Zacarías update can do more than mask the melodramatic style thinly cloaked over some good tunes or whether the Zarzuela form is a culturally acquired taste.
Both shows have bilingual libretti. This resolves the debate in a most satisfactory way whether an opera should be in its original to “get the feeling” and musical line or translated to better serve the audience. In Maria la O, the performers speak in English but sing in Spanish or, occasionally, in an old Cuban dialect. In I Pagliacci, Rourke made very specific choices in the alternation of languages. Nedda sings a song her mother taught her in Italian, in a burst of homesickness for the old country. When tempers run fierce, the immigrants also forget to use the language of the newly adopted country.
Special mention must be made of Carlos César Rodriguez, pianist, Musical Director, and outstanding artist of the evening. He treated the audience to over one half hour of Latin melodies before the show, then played both operas, filling the evening with his commanding piano playing.
Now celebrating its tenth (independent) season, The In Series has finally found its home inside the walls of the Source theatre space, barnacling in much like the two worlds of performers in the nightclub world of Havanna and in Little Italy, New York. Producer and Artistic Director Carla Hubner puts together season after season that includes pocket operas, zarzuela, cabaret, new mixed music-theatre works, and chamber concerts. At an In Series performance, you will discover established artists flexing in new directions and local faces and voices getting a chance to work. This is a very important mission, and Carla has always found the energy and the commitment to put this work out there.