Three cheers for an invigorating collaboration. The In Series Opera Company, that constantly reinvents itself, closes its 30th season with an extraordinary Pocket Opera Double Bill: Love and Money. Two masterworks, usually staged independently, are performed side-by-side. Thematically they may not be related. But historically, they were created about the same time, in 1918, near the end of the Great War.
World War I annihilated the old world values of honor and altruism and shattered traditional forms in art and music. Igor Stravinsky immortalized the experience in The Soldier’s Tale (L’Histoire du Soldat), a parable meant “to be read, played and danced,” by three actors and a small instrumental ensemble.
Before he died in 1924, Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini, was known for his lyric-dramatic operas, exalting arias, and idealistic, self-sacrificing heroines. Think of La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, or Tosca. Relatively unknown is his barefaced take on human greed, Gianni Schicchi. Surprisingly, this last opera is a mock-heroic send-up of what family members can do to each other at funerals.
The Soldier’s Tale
Director Rick Davis and co-director/choreographer Jaime Coronado stage The Soldier’s Tale, based on a Russian folk tale, with Stravinsky’s music led by musical director/pianist, Frank Conlon. Their production is a condensation of the original, reduced from one hour to a half-hour. Embedded in his “Director’s Notes: Stravinsky & Puccini,” Davis reveals what he is doing. He wants the soldier’s journey home from the war to be realized as “a resonant experience in 1918, 1945, 1953, 1975, and seemingly the entirety of the 2000’s so far.” And the way he stages it, this 20th century work boils over with universal relevance without drowning us in anti-war propaganda.
Jase Parker, as The Soldier, dressed in cap and fatigues (costumes by Donna Breslin), is nothing short of electrifying as he lurches forward and back in an exaggerated, disjointed, return-home march on stage. You can tell by the spontaneity in his dancing that he is juiced and connected with this role, body and soul. Example: he takes a deep breath, falls into a deeper lunge, whips one arm around in a circle, like a rotating Ferris wheel, going nowhere. It is as if he is emerging from a dreamscape or nightmare into a wasteland. “It’s too quiet here. Yet it’s peaceful,” he tells us. Then he rummages through his knapsack and pulls out a violin and begins to play. From that moment on, we are hooked.
Kudos to violinist Sonya Hayes whose well-synchronized timing from stage right (there is no orchestra pit), atonal, digging-into-the-strings double-stop work, produce harsh, unsettling, macabre sounds. Joined by clarinetist Evan Solomon and Conlon who directs the music from the upright piano stage right, the ensemble make the militaristic, rat-a-tat theme, amazingly effective without percussion.
The set, borrowed from Landless Theater Company for their staging of Frankenstein, is relatively simple. The platform set is aptly desolate. Three Palladian windows are covered with transparent fabric, that function as screens for projections of passing scenery; and later on, the same windows serve as frames for shadow pantomimes.
Even though the story line has some hard-to-follow, opaque moments, (a plotline in the program would help), Jaime Coronado’s dance routines in “Tango,” “Waltz” and Ragtime,” (performed by Heidi Kershaw, Gregory Stuart and Ashley Ivey), based on modern and classical ballet technique, keep us grounded in what we know. It’s clear this is a Faustian fable. The Devil, depicted by Gregory Stuart standing spine-straight like an army officer at attention, assumes many disguises and offers the soldier a trade. His violin for a book on economics, that can make him money. “Just open it, and you’ll be rich,” intones the female dancer, Kershaw, who initially makes a spectacular, theatrical aisle entrance, with a roll of dark fabric trailing behind her. She’s the Princess and shape-shifts between a temptress, a wife and a mother.
Paper bills flutter around the stage like leaves. The Soldier hoards paper money that means nothing. From the wild, exuberant dancing around him, The Soldier eventually realizes that the poor lack material wealth but are happy. After losing his violin, he regains it. But does he still know how to play it?
Stuart, as the Devil, intones a warning: “You cannot be what you seek and what you were. You must learn to choose. No one has a right to everything. That is forbidden.” Thanks to pianist and musical director Frank Conlon, tempos switch from martial to frantic; keys jump from minor to major, whenever something significant happens on stage. An edgy, unpredictable mood broods over the story. No remedies are offered; no conclusions are drawn.
That the soldier’s identity is split, that he cannot go back to his romantic illusions before the war are chilling ideas that resonate now. Yet I felt oddly uplifted.
After intermission, we time-travel from Florence, Italy, 1299, to the all-American city of Philadelphia, 1966, and the blue-collar neighborhood of South Philly. In 1918, Puccini, who was inspired by an incident in Dante’s Inferno, took a walk on the dark side of his psyche and wrote the blistering one-act comic opera, Gianni Schicchi.
Some may prefer hearing this one-act opera in the original Italian. But as a send-up of the human condition, librettist Bari Biern brilliantly translates the Italian libretto into easy-to-understand English, capturing the needling wit, word play and the double meanings. And, most important– the sublimity. Better yet, Biern heightens the humor by Americanizing the libretto. Allusions are local. For instance, the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich shops, an icon for the All-American city of Philadelphia becomes a significant detail that the grasping relatives drool over.
Bruno Donati, a former owner of a Philadelphia cheese-steak-sandwich shop, is dead and the weeping relatives flock reverently over his supine body, until they discover the will leaves everything to the Church. Then they scramble like centipedes in every direction.
In the pivotal role of Johnny Schicchi, bass-baritone Gene Galvin, who is endowed with a rubbery, expressive face, like that of a deadpanning Harlequin, makes Johnny warm and likeable enough to be avuncular and deliciously funny. In his first entrance, he says: “Oh, these faces– could they get any wetter?/Bruno Donati must be getting better!” Yet Galvin’s sly smile exposes Schicchi’s real character. He’s a suave grifter, a swindler, even a crook, who is willing to break the law and risk being sent “up the river.” But, the way this shifty guy does it here is hilarious.
The highest of all the highpoints comes when tenor Jesús Daniel Hernandez, who plays Ricky, successfully projects the rogue with a good heart. Hernandez dazzled us last year in From My Latino Heart (De Mi Corazon Latino). Hernandez has returned to Washington after studying for a year in Italy and he can act.
Ricky, one of his younger relatives, just arrived from old country, dreams of marrying Lauretta, who has no dowry. She’s the daughter of Schiacchi, who is poor but a clever trickster, capable of impersonating the dead man and changing the will.
Clad in black leather jacket, cigarette in hand, Hernandez has a natural, charismatic presence in a staged opera. His Ricky (Rinuccio), one of Bruno Donati’s poor nephews, is true to life. He’s as ambitious and greedy as the cynical matriarch, Zita (mezzo-soprano Grace Gori) and as cunning in behavior as cousin Simone (baritone Lew Freeman). But there’s a difference. This rogue is a charmer and in love with Lauretta (Laura Wehrmeyer.)
It is breath-stopping when Hernandez mesmerizes us with his beautifully resonant tenor voice that soars above the crowd and launches into the emotionally charged defense of Schicchi, “Avete torto” (“Gimme a break here!”). After a clearly enunciated key change, characteristic of Puccini’s music, Hernandez’ stops heart beats with the passionate Florentine folk song (“Firenze e come un albero fiorito”).
Love and Money
Closes June 24, 2013
In Series at
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $21 0 $42
Sat, June 22 at 2pm and
Mon, June 24 at 7:30pm
Details and Tickets
And that brings up another outstanding moment. Soprano Laura Wehrmeyer, as Lauretta, delivers a dripping-with-sweetness, “O, my beloved Daddy, say yes, say yes!” (the well-known “O Mio Babbino Caro,”). Is Lauretta the essence of innocent, altruistic purity, as found in other Puccini heroines? Or is she a manipulative fox, gleefully greedy? Wehrmeyer endows the aria with sly smiles and subtle innuendos. Lauretta is used to getting her way with daddy-dearest.
I’d rather laugh at death. If that’s what adaptor Bari Biern, music director and piano performer Frank Conlon, and stage director Rick Davis, had in mind, then they have reincarnated Puccini’s spirit. It makes sense. I think Puccini had a sense of humor and was poking fun at his melancholy side obsessed with dying heroines.
Bravo/brava to all involved for delivering this delightful, entertaining double thrill.
Love and Money: L’Historie Du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) and Gianni Schicchi . By Igor Stravinsky (and C.F. Ramuz, who wrote the original text based on a Russian folk tale in French) and Giacomo Puccini . Directed by Rick Davis . Musical Director/Pianist Frank Conlon . Co-directed and choreographed (Stravinsky) by Jaime Coronado . Adapted for English libretto by Bari Biern . Produced by the In Series Opera Company . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.