The In Series Pocket Opera Company continues its season with another bold and juicy double bill. Last spring, Love and Money, a surprise hit, featured Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s last opera (written in 1918), Gianni Schicchi, the saucy, hilarious satire, laced with realism. In contrast, The Spirits (Le Villi), a dark one-act fantasy, is the first opera Puccini wrote at age 25. It was an instant hit that jump-started his career.
Written in 1883, The Spirits (Le Villi) is every woman’s dream of revenge against a lover who ditches her. Like the ballet Giselle, the story evolves from an ultra-Romantic, eerie German legend. The spirits are jilted virgins who die of broken hearts and wait in the Black Forest for their chance to take revenge on their faithless fiancés, by luring them into an exhausting dance of death.
The opera and ballet The Spirits, directed by Abel Lopez with choreography by Dan Joyce and Heart of Madrid achieve a beautifully integrated, animated collaboration. Puccini’s lyricism in The Spirits is enhanced by some extraordinary instrumentalists, who pitch in with rapid-fire playing and expressive vibrato from the sidelines. The In Series Chamber Trio, with violinist John Philligin III, cellist René Molina, led by pianist/musical director Carlos R. Rodriguez, are amazing as they interact and make eye-contact with the singers at key moments. The results are beautiful. This relatively simple piece about supernatural powers and fate still has magical power.
Two sweethearts, Anna (Randa Rouweyha) and Roberto (Peter Joshua Burroughs) in the rousing “Blessings to the betrothed” opener, with nine person ensemble spinning and enjoying a running two-step dance of celebration, plan to be wed during a flower-filled spring. But Roberto, who leaves to collect an inheritance, is intercepted in the Black Forest by a seductive temptress.
The original text is flawed. Puccini left a gaping hole. We see the engagement party in the village. But what happens to Roberto in the forest? We never witness it. Instead, in an interlude, entitled “The Abandonment,” consisting of 24 lines of poetic verse, Puccini inserted a Narrator. This spoken monologue is often cut from productions but not here. Actor Mary Gresock assumes the role and tells us, in English, the legend of how the young philanderer forgets Anna, who dies abandoned and alone the following winter. To keep Puccini’s original Narrator is a directing choice for clarity that works by building suspense; not a spoiler. It adds to the magic of what makes this bizarre piece so fascinating.
Several performers are stand out must-mentions because they dominate this highly-charged melodrama. Soprano Randa Rouweyha, as Anna, delivers a lovely performance of nuanced range from sweet lyricism to impassioned madness. In Anna’s aria of wishful thinking, “If I were but a small flower/Remember me,” for example, Rouweyha’s delivery is well modulated for the intimacy of the Tivoli Theatre. Because Anna has received an ominous warning in a dream, she is worried about Roberto’s loyalty. Consequently, she sings of her longings to become the tiniest of forget-me-not-flowers, as she hands Roberto one to carry with him forever.
But all is not sweet lyricism. And The In Series directing team effectively lets the intensity build in the Intermezzo. In the instrumental number, “Night of the Spirits,” dancer Heidi L. Kershaw, as the Spirit of the Woman Betrayed, commands the stage with explosive power. Her arabesques, barefoot dancing, contractions and falls to the floor become a metaphor for the larger-beyond-life forces that will destroy Roberto. And we catch glimpses of Puccini’s mature, realistic “verismo” style, that came soon after in more down-to-earth masterworks. Even though Puccini’s arias for the role of Anna may lack the full musical force and leitmotifs, written for later heroines, like Mimi (in La Boheme), Madama Butterfly, or Tosca, Anna’s innocence in the The Spirits, is a powder keg.
I dare you to forget the wild-eyed ghost of Anna, as depicted by Rouweyha, with disheveled hair, dressed in a diaphanous gray shroud (costumes by Sehar Peerzada), in a frenzied, after-death scene, as she repeats the refrain: “….It’s a terrible pain to suffer in silence…” Then, in the arietta (short aria), “Did you forget your word?,” Anna betrayed, comes across as a crazed Medusa, her sinuous arms undulating like snakes. And she becomes a fury, lusting for revenge.
The Spirits and Heart of Madrid
Closes December 7, 2013
3333 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-204-7763
Gregory Stuart doesn’t quite have the high-octane, chest tones to bring down the house as Anna’s father, Guglielmo. The role is a stretch for him. As noted in the press packet, but not in the program, “due to an emergency,” this plucky trooper, who also serves as a backstage production manager, stepped into the role late in rehearsal to replace baritone Peter Brabson.
As if to compensate, Stuart shines as a featured player in Heart of Madrid, a collection of light-hearted popular songs, sung in Spanish, from famous zarzuelas (musical comedies). Compiled and adapted by Elizabeth Pringle, the songs are framed with a story in easy-to-understand English dialogue. There’s a place for everyone. And each member of the nine-person ensemble takes a turn in the singing spotlight
Sam (Gregory Stuart), an American businessman, alone and inebriated, is stranded in a Madrid bar for lost souls. “Here you discover who you are and what you might become,” says the bartender, Luis, gallantly played with panache, by Aurelio Dominguez. Adriana Gonzalez provides nice support as the sympathetic Fortune Teller, a matchmaker. The mock-heroic text threads together how Sam and A Woman, Who Has Amnesia, (Mary Gresock) rediscover a new lifestyle. “Waltz of the Dandy” (“Vais del Caballero de Gracia”), from La Gran Via by Chueca y Valverde (1886), with Stuart as Sam, is an utterly charming highpoint. Even a tipsy tourist can become an aging madrileño, full of Old World charm, as a gentleman from Madrid
The entire one-act conveys the grandeur of being alive, living life to the fullest, and celebrates how love conquers all. Basically, Heart of Madrid is a send-up that contrasts with the seriousness of The Spirits and is a fitting finale for a balanced evening of exciting, solid entertainment..
Note: If you need the surtitles to translate the Italian libretto and lyrics of The Spirits, it’s better to sit further back for a full perspective of the screens at the sides of the stage. Program notes are adequate and helpful.
Pocket Opera Double Bill: The Spirits (Le Villi) by Giacomo Puccini . Libretto by Ferdinando Fortuna.
Heart of Madrid, a Spanish Zarzuela . Book by Elizabeth Pringle
Directed by Abel Lopez . Music directed by Carlos C. Rodriguez . Conductor / Pianist : Carlos Rodriguez . Surtitles by Brendan Sliger & Carla Hübner . Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.