Once more Producing Artistic Director Carla Hubner and her In Series have taken on a double-bill of “pocket opera”. And, as she has in the past, Hubner refuses to be either defined or limited by culture, including language, musical genres, or budget.
Here she plays her own game of chance and strategy, pairing up opera by the most sophisticated 20th century duo, Samuel Barber and Carlo Menotti, with the classical “folk” music-theatre of Spanish zarzuela. Despite the stated limitations that “pocket opera” might suggest, she works with what she has and pulls off what amounts to a winning hand.
The evening starts with a little gem, Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge. It has everything opera should have: strong mounting tension, big emotions, character revelation, and some beautiful soaring melodic arias. And the work delivers it all in less time than the clock strikes the quarter hour. Two couples sit down, as they do every evening, to play a round of bridge. In between bored calling of the cards they toss down, each one in turn sings of his or her inner longings, regrets, or, it turns out, suppressed, sexual fantasies.
I was totally charmed once more by the brilliance of this little opera and the premise, a work conceived to be presented around a little gaming table, which can be staged in as intimate a space as one’s living room. Tenor Alvaro Rodriguez and baritone José Sacin are particularly strong as the two husbands with much else than cards on their mind. I would only quibble with the balance the night I was at the performance and suggest that the piano was a little overpowering for the delicacy this piece requires.
El barberillo followed the Barber piece. Librettist Elizabeth Pringle has updated the work, providing a clever “prologue” scene that serves as a framing device to help connect the non-Spanish speaking audience to the charms of and conventions of zarzuela. Randa Rouweyha and Alvaro Rodriguez, whom we’d just seen as the bridge playing couple, re-enter the theatre audience as latecomers Marge and Larry. Their comments about the space, an evening out for opera, and marital irritations seem like a continuation of the Barber world.
Through the eyes of the couple, we are literally carried into the world of theatre. In one stroke, Director Rick Davis brilliantly transforms the world of D.C.’s 14th Street theatre, seeming to push back the walls to carry us into a world of sounds, colors, and crowded throngs of the streets of Madrid. Alvaro was totally believable as the man, at once livid and bored by all the lousy discomforts and incongruities of small theatre. Rouweyha has never been more assured than in her comedic role as Marge, with a thick nasal accent, sharp tongue, and a hairdo worthy of “The Sopranos.” The show in some ways remains their story as both rediscover passion and their love by being seduced by the freedom and inspiration that opera incites.
The original zarzuela then becomes the story within the story. It works perfectly therefore as a classic “mash” of Rossini, Gilbert and Sullivan and, I might go so far as to say, Monty Python. Pringle has created a bridge for audiences that might otherwise not succumb to the jumbled silliness of the genre. But as a fun community event with people throwing themselves into “let’s put on a show in the plaza and sing all our favorite songs,” all the pieces work. Davis builds on Pringle’s scaffold and makes the effervescent spirit of the work shine through.
The plot is borrowed nonsense, of course, but that’s not the point. It’s all joyous fun. The dancers, Alisa Bernstein and Heidi Kershaw, partnered by Miguel Resendia, click away on their castanets and nimbly hop and prance folk dances in the most delicious way. The three policemen, Alex Alburqueque, Manuel Gallegos and Noah Mitchel, produce their own capers throughout the show, clowning and singing as amusingly as police in Pirates of Penzance. Townswomen Fabiola Echazabal, Chris Herman, and Katy Léon provide an able female chorus and shine individually in “Song of the Seamstresses.” We even get Matty Griffiths as the non-singing DC cop to provide some realistic acting that grounds the whole piece.
Special kudos go to Anamer Castrello, who sings Paloma, the dovey-love of the barber Lamparilla. Seen last year in O as Maria, the songstress, she delivers the same warm sound and demonstrates even greater command of the zarzuela style. Even when she is sidelined on the stage, she remains totally present, cheering on the events and characters in focus. She and Rouweyha share a wonderful duet, “Duo de las Majas,” where Castrello teaches the nubie how to look, act, and talk like a real “maja”.
Peter Joshua Burroughs does a terrific job as Lamparilla, the barber of Lavapiés. It’s a role he is totally suited for, and his comic abilities were well matched with good singing form. In “Duo de Tirana,” he and his Paloma sing to each other about what they did while he was in jail. They seem to have such fun on stage together and help the audience fall apart laughing at the incongruities in the form. José Sacin as Music-Director/Conductor and Billie Whittaker on piano keep the music rolling for a very satisfying evening of music-theatre. Hats off to them, director Rick Davis, and ensemble.
The production is not the first time the producer Carla Hubner has delivered the art of zarzuela with the songs in Spanish and the dialogue in English. She brings the work into the 21st century by initiating surtitles in English to make the genre even more accessible cross-culturally.
The In Series is a theatre that dares to join not only composers and their works but audiences of different backgrounds and languages to rub up against each other in evenings of music and theatre fun. Our capitol needs to have more offerings like this in the city’s dominant languages of English and Spanish.
Barber & Barberillo
Directed by Rick Davis
Music Direction by Billie Whittaker and José Sacin
A Hand of Bridge
Composed by Samuel Barber
Libretto by Carlo Menotti
El barberillo (Little Barber) of Lavapiés
Ernesto Composed by Francisco Asenjo Barberieri
Libretto by Luis Marian
And English book by Elizabeth Pringle
Produced by The In Series at Source Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: two hours with one intermission