A Ballet and Opera Double-Thrill
WAM2! (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) has found an apt locale for making art; not war. It’s upstairs in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where downstairs the Intersections New America Arts Festival is now running at full tilt.
Last January, director and chief choreographers David Palmer assisted by Septime Webre introduced their startling idea for The Washington Ballet Studio Company’s young international ballet stars to share spotlights with lead singers from Artistic Director Carla Hubner’s In Series Opera. The collaborators wanted to humanize Mozart’s life and music. Playing to sellout houses the first WAM (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) focused on Mozart’s early life.
Now the choreographers’ second joint effort, WAM 2, updates and streamlines two of the genius composer’s mature operas, Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan tutte or Women are Like That (1790), composed near the end of his life in 1791.
For breathtaking, breakneck risk-taking, and artistic inventiveness, Palmer’s sequel is a mock heroic gala not to be missed. Tribute is due to the brilliant work by the choreograhers: Palmer and Webre (or David and Septime, as they prefer to be called in the program), assisted by Jared Nelson, and Carlos Valcárcel.
Of the two opera buffas (comic operas) depicted, Don Giovanni is perhaps the more successful because there’s more interaction between the players in the mock-plot. An imaginative, far-fetched frame story, as absurd as most opera stories, places us in a 1980s Midwestern WAM-TV Studio (sets by Osbel Susman-Pena). And we are lured into the tortuous plot of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests and his victims’ revenge. Structurally, it’s a clever device that works to integrate singers and dancers.
Backstage dirty politics cause a murder. During a rigged audition for a silly TV game show, “Take a Chance on Dance,” conducted by Wolf Schnitzel, a WAM-TV news anchor (Mattias Kraemer) the contestants, from The Washington Ballet’s Studio Company and Ballet School Trainees take turns showing off their spectacular leaps, twirls, and technical know-how. Scandalously, the boss’s daughter wins the contest.
Although Anna (lyric soprano Laura Lewis) is the least talented dancer, she gets the dancing role. And her father, the Commodore (Richard Potter), owner of the television station, is mysteriously murdered with a broom. (I won’t give away the gag. The point is to make fun of Mozart’s sword fight in the original.)
Game show host Don Giovanni, sung with street-smart cynicism by tenor Alvaro Rodriguez, in a dazzling white tux jacket, exposed chest and gold chain, is an attractive hunk with swarmy charm, drawn to “girls of every size.” That’s what his servant Leporello sings (resonant-voiced bass Sean Pflueger in a commanding presence.) But trouble is brewing like stormy weather from the once spurned Elvira, (Randa Rouweyha), the take-charge new weather woman. Coloratura soprano Rouweyha, (an In Series fave) dressed in bright yellow, delivers a soaring lyrical counterpoint, “Where is that cheat?” (Ah! Chi mi dice mai). The only solace the compassionate Leporello can offer in the famous aria, “The Catalogue,” (“Il catalogo”) is that Elvira has the honor of being one of 1002 conquests. It’s a celebratory moment for masculinity.
But David and Septime have solid dramatic instincts and build Act I up to a dynamic highpoint where lighting and theatrical elements synthesize. The company of female dancers, dressed down in tattered black leotards, form a serpentine chorus line, like a chain gang of Giovanni’s morally corrupted victims and inch their way up the auditorium aisles. Once the dancers, their haggard faces streaked with black, mount the stage, they are glaring demons against the leaping flames of eternal hell (lighting by JAX Messenger).
Ultimately, the act ends with every betrayed woman’s dream of revenge. A terrified Don Giovanni lies heaped on the ground with a swarm of clawing, tormenting females piled on top of him. (Is this really punishing for a Don Juan?) This climax is darkly funny and wonderfully satisfying.
Act II is brilliantly balanced. All four of the choreographers, David and Septime, Jared Nelson, and Carlos Valcárcel shine. We backtrack to 1968, at the peak of anti-war protests. We’re in a 24-hour diner on Route 66, near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a U.S. military support training center, as good an excuse as any for sinewy athleticism, spoofing militaristic maneuvers, even the Marine crawl. It’s also a setting for some gender-based slapstick that provides walk-on roles for TWBS trainees.
Cosi fan tutte begins with company’s male dancers in a gleeful macho dance, filled with gusto that ends with a fantastic role-reversal, a send-up of ballet as high art. With fluttering hands, imitating Mozartian trills and musical ornamentation of 18th century, neoclassic music, the virile dancers poke fun at themselves. When they raise each other to elevated postures in classical lifts and arabesques, characteristic of their female counterparts in a pas de deux, it’s outrageously humorous; a deadpan lampoon of the seriousness of classical ballet. Just wait for what’s to come to create the choreographic balance.
Against all the bodily movement in the first scene, however, the familiar opera story is set up. The trio, Ferrando (Alvaro Rodriguez), a customer, his buddy, Billy (Sean Pflueger) eulogize the faithfulness if their fiancés, Dorabella (Tara McCredie) and Fifi (Laura Lewis) to skeptical Alfie, (Richard Potter), a worldly-wise man-about-town. The trio makes a wager. The younger guys take Alfie’s bet that no woman can be faithful. And Billy and Ferrando agree to don disguises as hippies, who want to make love, not war, and set out to test Fifi and Dorabella.
The rest of the operatic parody is about the tricks played, disguises (costumes by Donna Breslin) donned until the wager is won or lost. The wigs, beards, and disguises manage to bridge that willing suspension of disbelief: How can the girls not recognize their fiancés in disguise as toy boys?
Although the parallel dance and opera universes don’t mesh as often in Cosi, the exaggerated mock heroic style is sustained. In Don Giovanni, a rake is punished. In Cosi fan tutte, women are forgiven for their disloyalty and restored to their (ahem, take note) rightful pedestal. The message is clear: Women can’t be trusted. Women are human. Ergo, humans can’t be trusted. But in Mozart’s world, women deserve to be exalted. The classical lifts and elevated poses from the first scene are gloriously reprised stage center by the female dancers in the end.
Pianist Carlos César Rodriguez, who interprets and adapts Mozart to the piano with impressive flair, is well deserving of the title of “The Orchestra” in the program. His expressive rendering approaches virtuosity for going it alone by taking on Mozart’s rapid-fire, transparent and challenging music, in which a single missed note would be heard. It takes the youthful zeal of the dancers to fill in the orchestral texturing with their stratospheric lifts, grand leaps and physicality.
The Washington Ballet Studio Company is now represented by an international mix that deserves recognition as follows: Rebecca Houseknecht from Maryland; Ayano Kimura, Japan; Amber Lewis, Australia; Tamako Miyazaki from Tokyo, Japan; Lamin Pereira Dos Santo from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sun Chong, Beijing, China; Alvin Tovstogray, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. And all The Washington School of Ballet trainees.
Overall, what’s inspiring is the way the young dancers exuberantly share spotlights with the In-Series opera singers in capturing Mozart’s spirit of levity. I heard an audience member wish that the program had included photos of the individual dancers to commend them for the thrilling pas de deux work.
WAM2! A Ballet and Opera Double-Thrill
Selections from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte,
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Based on WAM2 Concept by David Palmer
English adaptation by Bari Biern
Directed and Choreographed by David Palmer and Septime Webre, and assisted by choreographers Monique Meunier, Jared Nelson, Carlos Valcárcel
Music Direction by Pianist Carlos César Rodriguez
Produced by Artistic Director Carla Hubner, In Series Opera Company and The Washington
Ballet assisted by the School of Ballet Trainees
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: About 2 hours with one
Note: To get to the Atlas by Metro, jump on that D.C. bus line X2 from Gallery Place Metro, (the Atlas shuttle is no longer available)
DCTS review of WAM