The prologue that draws us into the Teatro Lirico of DC’s La Dolorosa (The Woman of Sorrows), a zarzuela by Jose Serrano, is totally mystifying. A dark-haired young woman, hugging a swaddled white bundle to her chest, scurries to the front of the church altar steps and collapses. All lights abruptly dim to blackout. We are left in the dark to wonder: Who was that woman?
When the lights come up again, we are in the art studio of the novice monk, Rafael, who has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Virgin of Sorrows, the patron of the convent. As staged by director Marco A. Campos, the soaring interior of the Church of the Holy City, the National Swedenborgian Church in Washington D.C., serves as an almost perfect stage set for this compact little play about spirituality versus earthly love. Almost, with one flaw.
What could go wrong? Campos, the director, who translated the Spanish dialogue into English, effectively adapts the original into an accessible, bi-lingual text.
José Sacin, already known for his galvanizing performances, and members of the ZarzuelaDiSi opera company have combined forces to produce this rarely heard gem, written in the early 20th century and first produced in 1930. The musical direction supplied by Sacin, the man with the baritone voice of velvet gold, proves the results to be warmly rich, and rewarding musically.
What went right was that tenor Alvaro Rodriguez (who alternates with Pablo Henrich on 10/4, 10/7), who played Rafael, stunned us into a submissive state of awe, by delivering an anguished narration of Mary’s torment as she watches her son slowly dying on the Cross. How this local singer has grown in stage presence since he was first seen (by this reviewer) in the zarzuela Bohemios by Amadeo Vives in 2007.
Effortlessly, Rodriguez handles this exquisite aria with sensitive shading, nuance, and impressive stage presence and dignity. Rafael relates to a scowling Father Lucas (baritone Sacin) and reserved Father Prior (bass-baritone Eduardo Castro) how the Virgin Mary walks endlessly on the “Cold Rock of Calvary” (“La roca fria del Calvario”) and represents “suffering humanity,” that can never be consoled. Yet from Rodriguez’ performance, I felt uplifted, and exalted.
Rodriguez succeeded in capturing the humility of an emotional mixed-up, young lover, a victim of unrequited love. The portrait Rafael is painting is of the face of the Holy Mother embracing Jesus after the Redeemer’s descent from the cross. Mary’s sad but stoic eyes stare out directly at the viewer. But something is askew. What is odd is the pose with Jesus’ head flung back resting on Mary’s shoulder. The image could be described as– well, not exactly seductive, but certainly sensual.
Others around Rafael recognize something startling as well in Mary’s face. The comic lay worker, Perico, dynamically played by baritone Alex Alburqueque, makes a strange comment. “She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.” Person? Father Lucas insists that, in fact, the young monk is painting an earthy woman. He sees only the “devil” in Rafael’s work and not an iconic, suffering Virgin. As Perico’s and Lucas’ comments gain resonance, it soon becomes clear that Rafael was once passionately in love with a woman named Dolores. He has painted her face. And the rest of the story unwinds as what’s in the heart of the novice monk surfaces.
It turns out that Dolores, given a wrenchingly expressive and beautiful portrayal by soprano Maria Aurora Paz, (who alternates with Gina Maria Perregrino on 10/4 and 10/7) is the mysterious woman in the prologue, who fainted on the floor. It is never exactly clear what transpired in the past, except in a stirring dialogue and duet between Rafael and Dolores. When Rafael once proposed marriage to Dolores, she made a wrong choice by refusing him. She ran off with another man, gave birth to a son and ultimately became a victim of spousal abuse and desertion. Paz has a remarkably flexible soprano voice that dips into the mezzo range at expressive moments. I loved her rendition of “Dolores’ Lullaby” (“Duerme, mi tesoro”, “Sleep, my treasure”) that needed no supertitles for understanding.
Musical director Jose Sacin adds musical numbers in both Acts I and II, something often done in nineteenth century zarzuelas to please audiences. One wonderful add-in occurs at the start of Act II. Sacin as Father Lucas asks “Are you suggesting I’m boring?” to answer a needling taunt from Father Prior, sung by bass-baritone Eduardo Castro, about not having a sense of humor. The “toast aria,” or “Jerez,” (celebrating Spanish “Sherry”) from Don Gil de Alcala, is a delightful duet, sung between Lucas and Prior with matching zest and verve.
Then in Act II, Sacin, who will sing the role of Father Lucas throughout the run, shares some combative, interactive moments in his amazingly controlled sung crescendo with accompanist Michael Crabill at the piano. In a borrowed aria, “La Lluvia ha cesado,” (“The Rain has ceased,” from Ruperto Chapi’s zarzuela La Tempestad, ) Lucas wrestles with his subconscious to control his uncontrollable passions. The piece was a show-stopper on opening night.
3 performances remain:
Oct 4th, 5th, (7:30PM), and 7th (3:00PM)
Church of the Holy City
1611 16th St.
1 hour with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Details and tickets
Zarzuelas are Spanish light operas, that borrow from Italian verismo or realism (as found in Puccini’s La Boheme), that focus on impoverished, common working class people as characters. Perico, played with teasing relish by Alburqueque, offers comic contrast in the Duetto Comico (comic duet) of courtship in his comic routines with Callie Schlegel (who alternates with Erin Riley on 10/4 and 10/7) as Nicasia. Perico’s parents, his mother, Juana, played by Adriana Peri (who alternates with Cynthia Gorostiaga on 10/4 and 10/7), and his father, José, depicted by Felix Fernandez-Pizzi (who alternates with Eduardo Castro Sr. on 10/4 and 10/7) become part of the boisterous wedding party that celebrate the power of love and reconciliation by all parading down the center aisle of the church.
So what went wrong on opening night? One flaw that promises to be corrected in all performances that follow. The translated supertitles that were projected on the Gothic ribbed vaulting walls of the altar were unreadable and more a distraction than helpful for understanding the English translation of the Spanish-sung lyrics. Reportedly the projection screen that was promised didn’t arrive in time for opening night. Projection screens set to the sides of the action absolutely would enrich enjoyment.
But the entire performance, as is, was pitched with such sincerity, that La Dolorosa at the Church of the Holy City was a recital of one beautiful piece of music after another, well worth experiencing.
Sung in Spanish with English supertitles with all spoken dialogue in English
La Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows), By Jose Serrano, Adapted and directed by Marco A. Campos, Produced by Teatro Lirico of DC in a co-production with ZarzuelaDiSi, Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy